Republicans Find Their Own John Kerry

Examining the results of the presidential election and how Romney went so wrong

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Now that the votes have been cast and counted, and the president has handily won a second term, the long and convoluted process of dissecting this election will begin. The data wonks will begin combing through demographics and vote tallies searching for hard numbers to chart Obama’s path to victory. The pundits will either fume or gloat, depending on their party affiliation, but either way will bloviate and prognosticate and offer post-mortems. The Obama team will give itself a well-deserved pat on the back for reassembling (most of) its 2008 coalition and once again running a formidable ground game. And, of course, the Republican Party is likely to assemble quickly and noisily into a circular firing squad.

There will be many attempts by various right-wing factions to explain Romney’s loss. The more pragmatic among them will mix undeniable truths (Obama’s undoubtedly superior get-out-the-vote machine, the failure of Republicans to court a wider swath of the growing Latino population) with unanswerable questions (Should so-called “Moderate Mitt” have emerged sooner? Did having Romney sidelined during Sandy drain his momentum?). The more rabidly ideological base will find any which way to spin this into a reaffirmation of their impenetrable world views, rattling off arguments ranging from tin-eared and out-of-touch (they lost because Romney was never a true conservative) to downright insane (Obama was manipulating the jobs numbers; the Democrats control the weather and unleashed Superstorm Sandy to turn the election).

And while the Republicans have their firing squad, the Democrats will have their circle jerk. Liberal strategists, pundits and supporters will weave the admittedly numerous strands of good news into a warm, fuzzy security blanket to keep out the cold, hard facts of a divided country that just barely skewed left this time. They will claim a mandate, a decisive refutation of the conservative agenda, despite a slim popular vote majority and what amounts to a status quo in congress. Their huzzahs and “I told you so” exhortations of moral and intellectual superiority will deafen them to the otherwise unmistakable sound of the conservative movement sharpening its knives for mid-terms.

If, however, they can see through the fog of the election, listen for the one crystal clear note of truth ringing out in the cacophony of lies and spin and punditry, people of all political stripes will arrive at the one obvious conclusion about this election: the Republicans lost because their candidate was flagrantly, transparently, completely full of shit.

Never has a candidate for this country’s highest and most solemn office been so nakedly craven and cynical, so willing to say anything to anyone for any reason, so bereft of an actual moral or intellectual core as Mitt Romney. From the “severely conservative” right wing ideologue who dragged his party kicking and screaming through the primaries to the moderate centrist former governor of Massachusetts who (re)emerged during the first debate and sprinted through the remainder of the campaign, careful not to make direct eye contact with anyone, lest they be able to fix their gaze momentarily on his vast and bottomless emptiness, to the sweaty, fast-talking huckster who tried to sell any and everything from his “evolving” views on abortion to his purposeless and unrequested military buildup to his cockamamie “Obama’s helping Chrysler ship jobs to China” wolf cry, it was never entirely clear to anyone, least of all the candidate himself, which Mitt Romney was showing up to work on any given day. President Obama, in ascribing his view of the Republican standard-bearer to children, elucidated perhaps the simplest and most poignant truth about his opponent: “They look at the other guy and say, ‘Well, that’s a bullshitter, I can tell.’”

Pure and simple: the Republicans lost this election because they sent a salesman to do a leader’s job. They ran the same playbook the Democrats ran in 2004, apparently neglecting to read that last page in which they lost the election. They pinned their hopes on a supposedly “electable” cipher of a candidate whose only definitive quality was that he was not the other guy. The conservative movement’s real candidate for president was Barack Obama, not Mitt Romney. Despite the late talk of the base rallying around its candidate, conservatives were never so much lined up behind Mitt Romney as they were in front of the president, scrambling to form an electoral Maginot Line in an attempt to block his return path to the White House. That strategy failed the Democrats in 2004 when they tried to funnel a floodtide of “anyone but Bush” sentiment into the empty vessel that was John Kerry, only to find his candidacy too porous and structurally unsound to hold water. Shameless fear-mongering and virulent hatred of the incumbent are great tools for stirring up irrational emotion and whipping the base into a lather, but winning an election requires something more substantive than simply pointing at the other guy and shrieking hysterical accusations.

Perhaps I’m placing too much faith in reason, but I have to believe that this election came down to a majority of previously undecided voters arriving at the conclusion that Mitt Romney was frankly not serious – that whatever their own personal ideological leanings, he was too malleable, too eager to please, too willing to offer nothing but hollow bravado and well-triangulated talking points devoid of any intellectual heft to be given credence as a potential Leader of the Free World. The man seemed to be incapable of feeling shame, unwilling to commit to anything and incalculably empty, disqualified for our highest office not by the values he espoused, not by the platform on which he ran, but by the borderline nihilistic and sociopathic ambition that underscored his every appearance and utterance. Romney believed in nothing so much as winning, seemingly regarding the presidency not as a solemn duty to serve the country, but simply another feather in the cap he would wear around the country club, another trophy to place upon his shelf, another conquest about which to brag in his rarified club of entitled, self-important men.

There are indeed lessons to be drawn from this election, conclusions to be arrived at, but as Democrats and Republicans retreat to their respective corners to beat their chests and lick their wounds, let them not find affirmation, but rather warning signs and causes for self-reflection. For their part, Republicans could not capitalize upon the opportunity of a battered incumbent in an ailing economy, grappling with an unemployment rate that has doomed every candidate since FDR who sought reelection in its harsh glare and fumbling to rearticulate the message of hope and change that so invigorated the electorate four seemingly long years ago. The Democrats, on the other hand, barely managed to fend off a challenge from a slimy, pandering chameleon of a candidate whose own base had to hold their noses as they cast their ballots for him, whose own party and punditry continued to question his candidacy throughout the election. If either side can find reassurance in that, then maybe a blank slate onto which we can each project our own vision of America is exactly the president we needed.