Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Conservative myths about 2008

Michael Medved does an admirable job in refuting the myths that some conservative bloggers and activists are using to explain why they oppose Mitt Romney this election. The myths center around their misinterpretation of why John McCain lost in 2008. Their thesis is that McCain was forced on the Republican electorate by the leaders of the party but then he went on to lose the election because conservatives were demoralized and didn't turn out. As Medved shows, the Republican establishment didn't want McCain and would have preferred Giuliani, Thompson, or Romney to McCain. Those candidates didn't measure up. However, McCain's failure in the general election wasn't because conservatives stayed home.
In fact, the exit polls showed that the 34% of all voters who described themselves as "conservative" in 2008 precisely matched the portion of the electorate that saw itself as conservative for George W. Bush's re-election in 2004. Because of the much larger overall turnout in 2008, this meant that far more self-identified conservatives (44,627,000) showed up at the polls for the McCain-Obama battle than in the prior duel between Mr. Bush and John Kerry (41,571,000).
The reason McCain lost was because he lost the moderates in the middle. They went overwhelmingly for Obama.
Mr. McCain lost because he performed more feebly than Mr. Bush among moderates (winning only 39%, down from 45%) and particularly among Hispanics (down to 31% from 44%), according to the exit polls—and not because right-wingers refused to vote or capriciously abandoned the Republican cause. Election Day 2008 saw the biggest turnout of self-described conservatives in American history, and Mr. McCain drew an even larger portion of those voters (78%) than did Ronald Reagan (73%) in his landslide over Jimmy Carter in 1980.
There are reasons to oppose Mitt Romney, but being unelectable is not one of them. In fact, if electability is your criteria, I have to believe that Romney would be much more appealing to moderates than Newt Gingrich. Gingrich might have taken many moderate positions, but his image among the electorate is as a conservative opponent of Bill Clinton. Most people aren't aware of his more moderate stances and, if they are, regard them as his pandering to elites to resurrect his standing inside the Beltway. And if what people are searching for is someone with executive experience, Mitt Romney has it all over Gingrich whose Republican lieutenants in the House were unhappy under his leadership and are notably missing from his support in this election.

Medved also disagrees with Rush Limbaugh's belief that "Conservatism wins every time." It worked for Ronald Reagan but has lost again and again. Gingrich is certainly no Reagan. He comes across as arrogant and self-important, and lacks the good-natured appeal that characterized Reagan. Romney is no Reagan either, but at least he isn't a blowhard.

And conservatives should stop lying to themselves that they could win the general election with a strong conservative candidate. That is not how elections are won in the U.S.
The big Senate gains for Republicans in 2010 came mostly from establishment figures like John Hoeven in North Dakota or Dan Coats in Indiana, along with unapologetic moderates like Mark Kirk in Illinois. The two most celebrated tea party victors in Senate races, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, actually won lower vote percentages in their states than Mr. McCain did two years earlier.

In short, the electoral experience of the last 50 years does nothing to undermine the common-sense notion that most political battles are won by seizing and holding the ideological center. In the last two presidential elections, more than 44% of voters described themselves as "moderate," and no conservative candidate could possibly prevail without coming close to winning half of them (as George W. Bush did in his re-election).

The notion that ideologically pure conservative candidates can win by disregarding centrists and magically producing previously undiscovered legions of true-believer voters remains a fantasy. It is not a strategy. At the moment, it is easy to imagine Mitt Romney appealing to many citizens who would never consider Rick Perry or Herman Cain. It is much harder (if not impossible) to describe the sort of voter—Republican, Democrat or independent—who would refuse to support Mr. Romney (over Barack Obama!) but would somehow eagerly back Messrs. Perry, Cain or Gingrich, let alone Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul.
He's exactly right. I wish it weren't so. I wish that 60% of the electorate were true conservatives. But they aren't. And one characteristic that conservatives should endorse is realism. Let liberals be the ones who operate in a land where wishes were reality; conservatives should be more clear-eyed.