Last week, I kept thinking of those images you see after tornadoes hit towns – homes reduced to kindling, survivors picking through wreckage. That’s pretty much how it felt on Wednesday morning. I believed the predictions that Mitt Romney would win big, especially after uber-guru Michael Barone opined that Romney might even take Pennsylvania. Romney did not take Pennsylvania. Nor did he take the essential swing states of Virginia, Florida and Ohio.
The autopsies will go on for some time, but what looms large for me is the issue of trust. For much of the late spring and summer, President Barack Obama’s campaign pumped out a narrative smearing Romney as a heartless rich guy, an impression Romney did little to counter.
Romney got a bump after naming Paul Ryan, who had advanced a smart reform plan for Medicare, as his running mate. This was a signal that if elected, Romney would do the big things needed to avoid a European-style debt crisis.
But big things – entitlement reform and tax reform – are complicated. And in the proposal-and-debate phase, the key details are often of interest only to wonks. Winning a mandate for a weighty agenda requires trust and Romney, despite his surge after the first debate, failed to connect with voters to the degree required. He didn’t stress how his tax-cut plan would have boosted economic growth.
Like many others, I underestimated Obama’s appeal and historical status. The electorate apparently was not willing to fire the first black president in favour of a wealthy man whose proposals were not fully understood by many voters.
Which leaves the country facing continued deadlock with largely the same players, a situation Harvard economist Greg Mankiw likened to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit. The play has three characters who arrive in hell expecting to be tortured. Instead, they are locked in a room together.
Soon they detest each other and realise their punishment is never to escape. Close, but perhaps in our case purgatory would be a better metaphor. Escape is possible, but you can’t see how – unless some unknown factor changes. Until that change occurs we face uncertainty. It’s hard to shake the feeling that last Tuesday, the nation made an irrevocable turn towards a more ominous future, one in which the government role is hugely enlarged at still-unknown costs – both in terms of money and a “depleted” national character, as Paul Ryan put it.
Yet it’s also clear that the Republican Party must change or be left behind by a changing nation. The harvest of the GOP’s anti-immigrant fervour was 70 per cent Hispanic support for Obama. Many Latino voters were angered by Romney’s remark earlier in the year that the answer to illegal immigration was “self-deportation.”
Opposition to same-sex marriage is another loser for the GOP. Maine, Washington and Maryland approved the marriage measures by popular vote. Voters in Minnesota rejected a ban. Wisconsin elected the first openly lesbian senator, Tammy Baldwin.
Fighting this losing battle turns off gays who might otherwise vote Republican and it taints candidates in the eyes of young voters. It’s time to let it go. Same-sex marriage is gaining acceptance in the US.
For the immediate future, the test for Obama is whether he can redeem the promise of his first campaign, reach for the centre –and deal seriously with the nation’s festering problems. How he handles the looming “fiscal cliff” negotiations will do much to shape the character of his second term.