If Election Day is about picking winners, the morning after is for post-mortems. That's when we slice open the losing campaigns, set aside the hundreds of millions of dollars that gush out, and pick apart the cause of death.
Why did the Romney campaign fail? Maybe the country is now GOP-proof. That is, maybe a Constitution-guided, free-market, limited-government candidate no longer can "appeal" to the majority of the electorate. It could be that the death knell rang early this year once 67.3 million of us, or one in five Americans, had come to depend on federal assistance, formerly known as "the dole."
This nearly takes us back to the level we hit in 1994 (23.1 percent), before President Bill Clinton and the GOP-led Congress "ended" welfare as we knew it. After a noticeable decline, the percentage skyrocketed during President Obama's first term. So, too, did the percentage of Americans who pay zero federal taxes, now a shocking 49.5 percent. Right off the bat, half the country listens to Mitt Romney promise to relieve taxpayers of the onerous burdens imposed by the federal government and either fears for its livelihood or hears static.
It was exactly such an economic message that formed not just the core of Romney's campaign, but all of it. On one level, this exclusive focus on economic issues to the point of tunnel vision marked a campaign determined to play it safe. On another level, it was a huge gamble, a roll of the dice on which Romney staked everything.
Why? I think this risky strategy evolved from the defensive crouch the average center-right politician assumes even to enter the intensely hostile environment our mass media have made of the public square. Seeking to avoid media retaliation, Romney advanced a cramped line of attack. For example, we have in Barack Obama a president more demonstrably socialist than any since FDR, but if Mitt Romney were to have mentioned that or called Obama a socialist -- with fact-based backup from, say, Stanley Kurtz's scholarly book "Radical-in-Chief" -- the media catcalls would have begun.
If he had asked Americans if they applauded their president's ongoing efforts to undermine the First Amendment to appease Islam, the press would have painted him as "Islamophobic," or a "hater."
If he had pointed out the fact that Obama's political mentors include a Communist Party organizer once on an FBI watch list for arrest in the event of war with the USSR; an ex-terrorist leader of the Weather Underground; a former spokesman of the PLO; and an anti-white, anti-American, black separatist minister, it's a sure thing the press would have decried "personal attacks."
If he had questioned whether a man who displays an online image of a birth certificate that's almost certainly a forgery is trustworthy enough to be president, Romney would have been demonized as both a "racist" and a "birther."
Few people can shrug that off. Rather than venture into such dangerous territory, the campaign seems to have ceded character and ideology issues as a matter of self-defense. "Taking the high road," the campaign argued that President Obama was a good man but a bad president. It was as if the election turned on a difference of opinion within the spectrum of political normal rather than a last-ditch chance to stop Obama's collectivist vision of "transformative change" from destroying what's left of the republic.
And so the Romney campaign "stuck to the issues," if only one of them. Afghan security forces continued to kill U.S. soldiers throughout the campaign season, but Romney ignored this manifestation of foreign policy meltdown. A fallen Navy SEAL Team 6 member's family accused the Obama White House of blowing operational secrecy, thus leading to their son's death, and Romney ignored an Obama scandal symbolic of political exploitation and national security fecklessness.
When asked to comment on a query from five House Republicans on whether hostile actors linked to the Muslim Brotherhood might have compromised our national security decision-making chain, Romney had no comment, either. "I'm not going to tell other people what things to talk about," he replied. "Those are not things that are part of my campaign."
They should have been. But since these same things (and many more) weren't part of the media's own campaign, he could get away with it. But ask yourself: Why? Why weren't Romney's stands on such matters of interest to the media? Because all of them, every one, had the potential to inflict political damage on President Obama. Romney may have kept quiet about them to avoid antagonizing the Obama-loyal media, but in so doing, he rendered himself incapable of inflicting political damage on the president, too.
The most perplexing nonissue of all has to be Benghazi-gate, the 9/11/12 terrorist attack in Libya in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. This real-time White House scandal was unfolding on several levels in the final weeks of the campaign, offering damning insights into Obama's foreign policy, his performance as commander in chief and his bald-faced willingness to lie to the American people. Romney didn't want to talk about it. The media didn't want to talk about it. Obama certainly didn't want to talk about it. "This election has nothing to do with four brave Americans getting killed," Obama said during a Colorado TV interview to the one reporter in the country who has asked the president whether he denied military relief to Americans under fire. And indeed, it didn't.
I wonder if that's one question Mitt Romney now wishes he'd asked the president himself.
(Diana West is the author of "The Death of the Grown-up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization," and blogs at dianawest.net. She can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @diana_west_.)