Big sigh of relief.  The right’s big gamble has failed.

Their big advantage

In several simple ways this election was the GOP’s to lose.  They went in with some important advantages:

  • They’d already won big in 2010.  They were enthusiastic and well organized and could draw on apocalyptic levels of misdirected rage.
  • They’d prevented an economic recovery.  Unemployment is still high, people are pinched, and that’s terrible for an incumbent.
  • The Democrats had 22 Senate seats to defend, the Republicans just 11.  It should have been possible to take control of both Congress and Presidency.
  • Obamacare is still new, so it triggers people’s resistance to change.  Unaccountably, most of it doesn’t take effect till 2014, so most people aren’t receiving any benefit yet, which makes it easy to be against it.

Their mediocre candidate

They then proceeded to throw these advantages away.  Part of it was, of course, the fault of Mitt Romney.  It’s hard to see how anyone could look at the past couple of years and be impressed by Romney’s integrity, likeability, or commitment to either base or moderate values.  His views blow with the wind, he’s an out-of-touch vulture capitalist, and he was unable to come up with any positive reason to vote for him.  He couldn’t offer a single sensible reason why the economy would perform better under his watch, and he simply refused to provide a tax plan that added up.

On the other hand, he certainly was the best in the primary field, and his very spinelessness was appealing to moderates, who could convince themeselves, improbably, that if he won he’d peel off the Joker mask to reveal the liberal Massachusetts governor.

The demographic cliff

But the real problem was that the GOP bet everything on identity politics.  They have become the party of old, white, straight, Christian males.  Look at some of Obama’s victory margins from last night:

  • Blacks: 93-6
  • Latinos: 71-27
  • Asians: 73-26
  • Women: 55-44
  • Under-30’s: 60-37
  • 30-44 age group: 52-45

Those are blowout numbers, and they’re getting worse for the Republicans every election.  The nonwhite population is increasing, and the old Romney voters are dying off, replaced by overwhelmingly Democratic voters.  The conservative nightmare that it’s always 1979 has little appeal for people who weren’t even born then.

In back rooms and outlying blogs there’s going to be a murmured debate: how can the GOP win back some of these voters?  It’s not rocket science, guys; do these two things:

  • Pick policies that aren’t just geared toward old, white, straight Christian males.
  • Stop alienating everyone else.

If you want to see how the alienation works, read this essay by Rany Jazayerli on how the GOP threw away the Muslim vote.  In 2000, 70% of American Muslims voted for Bush; in 2004 it was 4%.  Seriously, how does a party commit suicide this way?  They may be only 2.6 million, but a few million more votes would have been useful to Mitt, and as Jazayerli explains, they were far from a natural constituency for the Democrats.

Or, you know, there’s women, they’re half the electorate, stop attacking them.  Hopefully the defeat of “legitimate rape” Akin and “will of God” Mourdock will beat some sense into the party.  Missouri and Indiana voted solidly for Romney; they should have been gimmes for the GOP, and part of a GOP takeover of the Senate.  But they threw away these seats to please the crazies (who would have voted for them anyway).

Or, you know, stop picking on gays and lesbians.  Back in the ’90s Republicans decided to make a big appeal to homophobia, passing the Defense of Marriage Act, kicking gays and lesbians out of the military, and pushing ballot measures against same-sex marriage in state after state.  It made horrible, cynical sense at the time: demonize and punish a minority in order to get the bullies’ and bigots’ votes on other issues.  It doesn’t look like a cunning strategy today; it’s another path to cultural and electoral defeat.

Last exit for Galt Gulch

What a difference a decade makes.  It was depressing to be a Democrat in 2002; Republicans had control of all three branches of government and were crowing about the “permanent Republican majority”.  And Democrats seemed too nice to fight back, avoiding all the tools of obstruction Congressional Republicans deployed against Clinton and then Obama.

But where it took fifty years to make the nation tired of the New Deal, it took five to make it tired of Bushism.

Most conservatives today live in a bubble– they only talk to Republicans, they only watch Fox News, they were sure on Monday that Romney would win in a landslide.  Still, a tempting explanation of their strategy over the last few years is that they were desperate precisely because they know about the demographic cliff.  They saw this election as their last chance to create a Randite Utopia where the rich pay little in taxes, the New Deal safety net is dismantled, and the poor and middle class are properly humbled.

Romney actually came pretty close.  But it didn’t work, and in 2016 it’s going to be even harder, and in 2020 harder yet, and…

How do they recover?

Ultimately, the only sane option for the Republicans is to follow my advice above.  Note that I don’t say that they have to be liberals.  They can keep their preference for small government and plutocracy!  But some of the issues of the 2012 campaign– the war on women, anti-gay hysteria, Latino-bashing, voter suppression, unrelenting Randism– have got to go.  You pick which.  Hell, take baby steps: backing immigration reform, for instance, would probably peel off a good number of Hispanic voters.

There’s a problem with getting more moderate, though: the moderates have all been kicked out of the party.  The GOP has been busy electing Congressmen who think that cooperating with John Boehner is a crime.  They don’t have any ideological room to maneuver.  (Which, by the way, is why the centrist hope that a President Romney would have turned out to govern as a moderate was misguided.)

There’s a sane conservativism out there; if you want it, people like David Frum and Russ Douthat will describe it for you.  But there’s no obvious path from here to there.  Frum and Douthat are outliers, despised by the base.  The only sane primary candidate, Jon Huntsman, quit early and I doubt he’s getting any apologetic phone calls today.

The usual corrective for an out-of-touch political party is a decade of losses.  It did wonders for the Democrats after Reagan (and for Labour after Thatcher).  This process should have started for the Republicans starting in 2006– only it was arrested by the fluke victory of 2010.  The electorate in a midterm election skews old and conservative, and there was the terrible economy to rile them up.  So rather than experiencing a salutary loss, the party was rewarded for its craziness.

Their other problem is that they don’t have a clear leader who can take them either leftward or rightward.  There’s no leader of the stature of Ronald Reagan who could make a reasonable deal with the opposition and sell it to the base.  Romney goes back to being a rich guy with no official position, and he’ll be roundly blamed by the faithful anyway.  The figures with centrist appeal, like Chris Christie, Michael Bloomberg, or Colin Powell, disqualified themselves by endorsing or praising Obama.  And on the crazy side, the non-Romneys mostly showed themselves as comically incompetent even at unifying the base.

Ryan will probably emerge from the election unscathed or even buffed, but the strategy of attacking the president from the House is also not looking so good right now.  It didn’t work for Gingrich in the 1990s and it didn’t work for Boehner and Ryan after 2010.

The next few months 

After the election news dies down, the news cycle is going to be dominated by scare stories about the Fiscal Cliffs of Insanity.  Don’t let them get you too excited.  What the cliff means: the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year.  Plus, doing one of those stupid things legislators do in order to motivate themselves to do a real budget deal, Congress agreed to a set of draconian cuts in spending.  The cuts were to both social and defense spending, in order to motivate both sides.  It failed: no real deal happened, so the stupid cuts go into effect in 2013.

So the fiscal cliff means taxes rise and spending is cut.  If you’re worried about the deficit, that’s precisely what’s needed for fiscal balance.  Some disaster!

The problem, of course, is that the deficit hawks are idiots.  An austerity program is precisely what we don’t need right now.  The economy is still underperforming, and austerity would probably trigger a new recession.

Obama sure doesn’t want a recession, and I have to doubt that the Republicans really want one either.  They know now that they’re stuck with Obama for four more years.  Maybe it would help them in 2014… but they already have the House, so what would be the point?  So there’s ample motivation to do the right thing, which is not to fall off the cliff.  Just extend current policies, at least for a couple of years.

Rather than just doing the right thing, I’m sure the GOP will make it a nailbiter.  But the roles are reversed this time: Obama doesn’t have to ask nicely for a tax increase on the rich– he’ll get it on December 31 without doing a thing.  He can play chicken this time.  So my prediction is that we’ll get a short-term deal, probably sometime in the new year.

(A long-term deal would be too much of a stretch.  The GOP rejected Simpson-Bowles; the only possible way to convince themselves to make a deal is to make it short-term, in hopes that President Ryan can undo it in 2017.  Besides, long-term deals are illusory: Congress has no way of dictating the budget ten or twenty years ahead.  Remember, we actually got our fiscal house in order under Clinton, and it just took Bush four years to destroy that work entirely.)

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