These are days of hindsight and second-guessing for Republicans, which is human nature after a trauma like this election loss.
There are million “why” theories out there, from the Hurricane Sandy effect to pernicious media bias. Wringing our hands over those factors gets us nowhere.
We can’t stop hurricanes, and media bias is always there. Reagan and Bush 43 won twice against waves of poisonous bias, so that is not an insurmountable obstacle.
What Republicans need is a slate of candidates that can energize the base while expanding the appeal of a conservative message.
Easy to say, hard to do.
Like many of you, I spent Election Day in the warm glow of anticipation. I was going to see Barack Obama returned to private life-- “the end of an error,” as my favorite bumper stickers said. I could taste it. It was going to happen.
Except it didn’t.
Fueled by respected names in the pundit class, we allowed ourselves to invest emotionally in the Romney win before it happened. How could all of us have been so wrong?
It is not, as the left suggests, because we were rotting in a right-wing echo chamber, shielding ourselves from contrarian views. I considered thoughtfully the notion that Obama might well win, because we usually don’t kick incumbents out, and because the Democrats would surely have a well-honed ground game.
But I saw no way Obama would pull anywhere near the almost 70 million votes he received in 2008. Everywhere I turned were voters who were with him then and are no longer. Not that they were necessarily turned into Romney voters; many were turned back into what they had been before-- non-voters.
So that analysis was correct. Obama received 9 million fewer votes than in 2008.
But the companion expectation-- that surely Romney would pull more strongly than a 2008 McCain campaign widely viewed as tepid-- was far off the mark.
This was our undoing.
In Mitt Romney, we had a good man who was a good candidate. And for those of us willing to crawl on broken glass to make Obama a one-term President, it was easy to conclude that we had enough company to snare just a few million more than four years ago, when we pretty well knew we were about to get our lunch eaten.
But for all of its appeal-- a worthy candidate, a solid debate performance, a strong finish-- the Romney/Ryan ticket did not attract enough excitement to win a thoroughly winnable election.
We should not blame our nominee. The things he could control, he managed well. But the factors that hurt him were immutable.
We could not go back and make him consistently pro-life throughout his adulthood.
We could not go back and make him think better of Romneycare.
And we could not make him upper middle class.
Fairly or unfairly, these were voter suppressants.
Even if a small percentage of conservatives were wary of his late-life conversion to valuing the unborn, that made winning harder.
Romneycare was a bigger problem. Rival Rick Santorum wisely told us that we dared not offer up a candidate whose own policies while Governor undercut his ability to criticize Obamacare.
For what it’s worth, I thoroughly believed Gov. Romney when he said he would not attempt nationally what he enacted at the state level. One is constitutional, one is not.
But when you have enacted compulsory health insurance purchases in your state, you are a flawed messenger in an election that requires a voice professing lifelong opposition to such government overreach.
Romney’s wealth takes us into trickier territory, into the landscape of things that should not be held against any candidate.
It is sad that actual success in business sets up a candidate to be bashed as an uncaring, detached plutocrat. This is particularly wrong in the case of Romney, a glowing example of generosity in a lifetime of service to others.
But sometimes you have to play the field the way it is striped. So if our goal is to excite the conservative base while having some hope of expanding it, here is a to-do list that we can work on as the days unfold.
First, we reject the notion that we must somehow soften our views or cave on core beliefs. Any vote we would attract from the middle would be outweighed by votes we would deserve to lose on the right.
But we do have the choice on what to emphasize and what to phrase differently.
If social conservatism freaks some people out, make it clear that our candidates will stand for the unborn and man/woman marriage, but that ultimately those decisions are best left to the states. People who want fiscal sanity and strong defense can vote for us, and save their energies on abortion, contraception and gay rights for their state legislatures.
If we need to appeal to the nurturing instinct of women, we should describe how government is the worst purveyor of real care-- health or otherwise-- that truly helps people. Then we describe the protective value of fighting terrorism.
If we need to attract people of color, we hold events where they are-- lots of them. Goodwill breeds goodwill, even if it takes a long time. And remember, for 2016 “goodwill” might be defined as simply as 15 percent of the black vote and 40 percent of Hispanics.
Regarding Latinos, I refuse to believe they are unanimously desirous of soft borders and amnesty. I know many proud Hispanics who are consistently chafed at waves of people seeking illegal access to a country they entered legally-- and many of them are Democrats.
The GOP challenge with Hispanics is the same as the challenge with blacks, which is the same challenge we face with single women: we need to skillfully, caringly, compellingly persuade them that the expansionist welfare state they seek is not good for them or the country.
This takes time, and it takes talent.
So as we look toward to voting at last for Obama’s successor-- and make no mistake, campaigns on both sides will fire up right after the midterms in 2014-- we need to get very picky.
No more flights of fancy with candidates with interesting life stories but no elected experience.
No flirtations with candidates who can pump up a Tea Party rally but repel potential crossover votes with needlessly incendiary rhetorical excess.
And no more experiments with people of admittedly good heart and solid values who are simply not good at debating and answering challenging questions on the fly.
As a final filter, like it or not, we probably rule out anyone with a net worth greater than eight figures.
Even after that process, when we are left with a field of worthy prospects, we may need some sacrificial behavior from within that number.
I already hear the mumurings of fear that four or five true conservatives will enter the race, all attracting their 12 percent of the primary vote while a moderate more palatable to party power brokers and the Georgetown cocktail community shoots through that crowd to the nomination.
I don’t care where they meet in the Summer of 2014, but if we are blessed with the ambitions of Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Susanna Martinez, Bobby Jindal, Mitch Daniels, Nikki Haley and a few others I could mention, they need to meet somewhere over a weekend.
I don’t care if they draw straws, play rock/paper/scissors or draw up a checkers tournament. All but two need to sit it out.
We simply cannot have the internecine primary carnage that leaves us with another nominee that is the second or third choice of most Republicans.
I’d love to think that as a party we could craft that winnowing process ourselves in the primaries. We can’t. We’ve proven it. When we get passionate about someone, even someone who has zero chance of winning, we just don’t let go. Give us a half dozen people who are actually electable, and our heads may explode.
So let’s gear up for that mid-second-term off-year election that tends to be brutal for incumbent presidents, and get the Senate back, surrounding Barack Obama with two houses of Congress holding up shields against every bad idea he may float.
Then let’s field a candidate in 2016 who can win. Not by moving to the middle, but by bringing the middle toward us, through smarts, likability and life story. If this is the skill set of our 2016 messenger, there will be no need to water down the conservatism we know is right.