Originally published in Official Artur Davis
There are no ties weaker than the ones that bind politicians. So, no major surprise that surrogates who were just trumpeting Mitt Romney’s election as essential to the country’s future and celebrating his record as ideally suited to cracking open the partisan gridlock are doing their share of distancing from the defeated candidate. They have a lot to distance from: ranging from internal polling that was so off base it wasted the ticket’s precious time with last-minute campaigning in states they did not come close to winning, to Romney’s characterization of the Democratic base as tools whose affection was bought off by “gifts”.
But a cautionary note: Romney’s frustrations are the musing of a candidate legitimately perplexed by the Democrats’ ability to hold together a base that should have been frayed by the economic deterioration of the last four years. And if Republicans are being brutal but right about the politics of dismissing Romney, they are wrong if they ignore the question he was stabbing at: exactly how does a political majority keep intact when so many of its underlying policies aren’t exactly working in the interests of the coalition inside that majority? And if a flailing economy was not enough to weaken that base, what does that mean for the future given the unmistakable shifts in the national demographic?
Case in point: the African American solidarity behind Barack Obama in the face of severe black unemployment and poverty, and at the same time that Obama has aligned himself with a gay rights movement that is disdained by a consistent 30 to 40 percent of the black voter community. Another example is the 70 plus percent support Obama amassed from a Latino community that barely yielded him 50 percent approval ratings for much of 2011 and that was openly critical of his failure to push, much less pull off, comprehensive immigration reform. And for good measure throw in Obama’s sixty percent with voters 18-29 and more improbably, his ability to sustain their participation at 2008 levels despite months of polling evidence that the poor job market for young adults would diminish their enthusiasm.
Arguably, (and amusingly given the backlash from inside the party) Romney’s observations were only a clumsily put version of what numerous Republican commentators have said in a more sanitized way—that Democrats have nursed an entitlement culture that promises an engaged, assertive government to a variety of groups who are facing the imperfections of the free market. (Conservatives who argue that a softening of the GOP’s hard-line on immigration will be outweighed by Democratic pledges of more government benefits for Hispanics are channeling Romney). There is something to this assessment in its most reductionist form: between a health care law that has, for all its other imperfections, insured more young adults and low income minorities, to an executive order that eases off on the deportation of young undocumented immigrants, to a student loan reform that has cut the borrowing obligations of recent college undergraduates, the Obama administration has built a portfolio that delivered results for elements of its base that might have drifted.
Dismissing that record as a bounty of gifts was both impolitic and naive. There is nothing untoward or unpredictable in electoral groups siding with a party that has pursued initiatives friendly to their interests. But even the glossier version of Romney’ remarks, the pundit classes’ abstracting of initiatives that are base-friendly as an entitlement culture, is off-key because it underestimates exactly what else Democrats have managed to do. The more accurate assessment is that Democrats have stitched together a coalition that is linked less by dependency on government than by a shared perception of Republican and conservative insularity.
Republicans who marvel at the loyalty of the 08 Obama coalition fail to appreciate that the coalition was and remains socially aspirational rather than economic. Its foundation is a yearning for a culture that is stripped of its ethnic and social boundaries and hierarchies, an embrace of diversity as a strength rather than a source of disarray, and a suspicion that conservative individualism is both un-cool and at odds with the wired, interconnected reality of the 21st century. It should have been no surprise that the black/Latino/youth base responded so powerfully to Democratic insinuations that Obama’s defeat would mean a retreat from a modernist notion of American identity, and that consolidating that identity proved more compelling than jobless numbers (especially when Obama’s argument that Republican intransigence was more at fault than his own policies took hold).
To be sure, the Obama campaign did not trust its appeal entirely to inspiration. There was a healthy dose of fear-mongering: witness the demonization of voter ID laws, which Democratic operatives relentlessly painted as a scheme to suppress minority and youth turnout, as well as the allegations from Obama allies that ordinary Republican partisanship was deep seated revanchism and white backlash.
That Republicans minimized this demonization while it was in progress meant that it was rarely answered. GOP strategists comforted themselves with assumptions that liberals were practicing an identity politics that would backfire, or that cold economic realities would thwart the Democrats’ tactics, or at least constrain their turnout. Instead, the best evidence is that Democrats pulled off the feat of turning Republican orthodoxy into a cultural identity in its own right, one that was white, traditional and unattractively reactionary. The result was a galvanized Obama base that shattered Republican voter models.
The most expedient Republican arguments last week repeated the generality that all votes have to be pursued and rebuked the Romney campaign for seeming to tune out whole swaths of the electorate. In fairness, this “compete everywhere” idealization is not one that Democrats remotely practice: white Southern evangelicals, for example, are written off in the Democratic playbook, and in the bulk of the Deep South, Democratic parties exist as vehicles to lobby for federal patronage and not to win statewide elections. The deeper truth is that first, Democrats do manage even in the midst of a polarized country to put more more slices of that pie into competitive play; and second, that the bases of both parties harbor a mutual suspicion of their counterparts across the divide, meaning that as least as many Democrats see Republicans as racist, sexist, homophobes as Republicans see their opposites as being free-loading, hand-out seeking recipients of government largesse.
Some of this mutual bitterness is political warfare in a hyper-partisan age. But what a major portion of Americans assume, that politics for each side is the servicing of its partisan clients at the expense of any broader national interest, has had a disconcerting measure of accuracy. The 10 and half million dropouts from the 2008 voter pool likely agreed. For Republicans, the counter to that depressing scenario is not wishfulness about competing for all votes, but a renewed argument that conservatism is capable of revitalizing communities that don’t exactly practice conservative politics. And above all, the ability to outline a Republican agenda that is greater than the collective goals of the party’s donors and loyalists.