This was one of the most dispiriting elections of my lifetime.
Barack Obama had no business being re-elected. It should not even have been close. Here was a President who presided over the feeblest economic recovery in four generations. Three and a half years into recovery, the economy still is too weak to be self-sustaining. Moreover, it is decelerating; it has grown progressively more slowly in each of the last three years. Job creation is so anemic it is not even keeping up with population growth. Spending is at Brobdingnagian levels, but tax receipts are only enough to cover interest and entitlements. Every dime of the rest has to be borrowed. We have had four straight trillion-dollar deficits, and the national debt has grown by 60% under Obama’s leadership. Obama’s signature achievement is the worst legislation in decades, and the most unpopular. And it will cause the deficit to balloon even more.
This should have been an election over big issues – the relationship between the government and the citizenry, the proper size and scope of government, how to pay for our federal appetites. We are at a critical juncture, with Obama representing one course, toward more and more collective action, a broader safety net; and Mitt Romney another, toward smaller government, dedicated to enabling and mediating a vibrant private economy.
Romney made some show toward addressing the big issues, and tapping Paul Ryan seemed to signal that he got it; but the message never cleared the hubbub. Obama, for his part, rarely if ever mentioned his record or the big issues at hand. Instead, he played identity politics and small ball.
His was one of the most cynical, negative, and dishonest campaigns in decades. According to Politico, 85% of Obama’s ads were negative. He and his allies spent hundreds of millions painting Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat, serial vulture capitalist, asset-stripper, and murderer-by-cancer who hides his money and pays no taxes. Lies and distortions, all of it. And it didn’t stop with Romney. Republicans in general were caricaturized as racists, homophobes, misogynists, and, for good measure, greedy and selfish old white men who would happily let their grandmothers starve to give their rich friends a tax cut.
So much for changing the culture of America’s politics.
Equally dispiriting was the Republican Party’s inability to counter the Obama mudslide. It has been one of my complaints for years that conservatives do a terrible job of articulating why their policy prescriptions are right for all Americans. In this critical election year, that weakness was especially demoralizing. To compound the problem, Republicans continued to show a penchant for nominating flawed candidates, particularly for Senate seats, which handed several sure wins to the other side. The GOP has some soul-searching to do.
But not about principles. I don’t think Republicans do themselves or the country any favors if they decide the road back to political power is the one that goes through Democratic territory. I believe conservative principles are right, and they certainly deserve vigorous representation in the court of public opinion. But we also have to recognize that an adversarial press stands ready to distort any but the most clearly thought out positions, particularly on social issues. Immigration, abortion, gay marriage, and all the rest – Republicans have to figure out how to address these in a way that shows meaningful, thoughtful, principled stands, and recognizes the passions on both sides of the issue.
Pundits are saying much about the country’s changed demographics. Hispanics increased their vote in 2012 by about 1,700,000, and the GOP’s undeserved reputation as anti-immigrant surely hurt with that group; it’s one thing the party must address. The youth vote is more puzzling, however – yes, it went 60-37% for Obama, but why? Evidently they were more impressed by the endorsements of Jay-Z and Beyonce than the fact that more than 50% of them can’t find jobs in Obama’s economy, that thanks to Obamacare they will soon be paying for expensive insurance policies they would not otherwise buy, and that they will be spending much of their working lives paying off the debt incurred by Obama for government that we their parents have long since consumed.
But for me the dismaying thing about the 2012 election was the demographic that stayed home: according to Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics nearly 7,000,000 white voters who voted in 2008 failed to show up at the polls this year. If Romney had won 60% of this vote, as he did the rest of the white vote, it would have cut his deficit in half. Why did they not vote? Did Obama’s relentless character destruction succeed in turning them against Romney, or – equally useful – against the whole ugly process? Why did the anger and passion that drove conservatives to a legislative triumph in 2010 so dissipate in 2012?
Most dispiriting of all, however, are the policy implications of this election. First, Obamacare will be implemented, in all its misbegotten and still-misunderstood glory. It will distort medical care in this country, reduce incentives for creative new drugs and other therapies, and do absolutely nothing to slow the rise of health costs. Its costs will join the rest of our panoply of entitlements in ever-escalating spirals. History will view it as a prime example of liberal overreach with disastrous consequences.
But there are bigger issues. I don’t think the general public realizes how broke we are as a nation, probably because, unlike Greece, we seem to have no problem funding our preposterously generous entitlements. Just looking at the national debt held by the public, our government owes more than $50,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country – which is more than the net worth of most of them. Add to that the unfunded liabilities of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, plus the unimagined cost of Obamacare, and you realize that the only reason we are not facing Greek-style implosion is because the Fed – not China any more – is buying the government’s bonds, printing money out of thin air to do so.
This is a hard thing to make clear to the uninformed voter. But Romney needed to show urgency bordering on panic: we are borrowing $4 billion a day, and we can’t afford another minute of this guy!
And we got four more years. I grieve for my country, and for the diminished future that awaits my little girl.