op-ed

14 Lessons From 2012

Obama will get better. Politics keeps getting worse.

Jerome Delay / AP

1. He’ll be better at it.


Being president of the United States is a difficult job. Hard decisions land on your desk. Some of them are choices between terrible and dreadful. This is especially true in matters of national security and foreign policy.

President Obama had no experience in executive governance or matters of national security when he took office in 2009. It showed. Since then, he’s been through a hundred bad/worse choices and found people throughout the government whose advice is invaluable and necessary when such choices have to be made (see Mark Bowden’s book for more on this).

President Obama will be better at the job in these next four years, as presidents George W. Bush and William Clinton and Ronald Reagan were better at the job in their second terms. One hopes he cleans house and actually manages the federal government as well.

2. Tom Edsall nailed it in June.


He wrote the best piece of campaign journalism of the year. He correctly identified the election’s hinge (wavering white voters generally and working-class whites specifically). The Obama campaign’s concern, obviously, was to keep them from defenestrating the president.

Edsall described how Team Obama would address this problem: They would make Romney unacceptable. Some of the wavering whites might then vote for Obama as the lesser of two evils. But the higher purpose was to have working-class whites say to hell with it and not vote at all.

Combined with the Obama campaign’s much vaunted GOTV operation (which did indeed do a good job of getting its voters out), the “make Mitt unacceptable” strategy was the key to President Obama’s victory.

3. Where did all the white voters go?


A significant slice stayed home. The aptly named Sean Trende has a good piece on this today at Real Clear Politics. Turnouts were basically flat among black, Hispanic and Asian (and other non-white) voters. Altogether, they comprised 28% of the electorate.

Seventy-two percent of the electorate was white, which was down from 2008 by 2% (exactly as demographics would predict). But in study after study, the pre-election polling seemed to suggest that the white electorate would be 75% of the total (Gallup had it as high as 78% at one point).

In order to win, Romney needed the electorate to be 75% white and he needed to get at least 60% of that vote (which would give him 45% to begin with; add a fifth of the other vote and he gets 50%). In the event, the electorate was 72% white and Romney got 59% of that, which left him short of a popular vote majority and thus doomed his chances in the Electoral College vote.

Part of the reason for the falloff in white vote, I suppose, can be attributed to the fact that in 36 states (at least), the winner is more or less known well in advance of the election. My vote for Romney in New York was irrelevant because Obama was going to win New York even if I voted 100 times. My daughter’s vote in Austin was likewise irrelevant; Romney was going to win Texas regardless (I don’t know who she voted for). And Superstorm Sandy obviously depressed turnout generally in the Northeast.

But the other part of the reason is that the Obama campaign was successful in convincing wavering and working-class whites that Romney was not, as they say, “on their side.” And the Romney campaign’s failure to combat this argument left some of these wavering white voters with the idea that Romney wasn’t a particularly attractive alternative. So why bother? The Obama campaign’s white vote “suppression” effort was successful.

4. The third debate was a disaster for Romney.


Not what I thought when I saw it and most of the immediate commentary played it as a kind of draw. But if your argument is “nice guy, not up to the job,” spending a couple of hours agreeing with the president on national security issue after issue on every TV channel in America was not the best way to advance that argument. The truth is that the president won that debate decisively. And it mattered.

5. The Romney campaign was largely brain-dead.


I’ve been “covering” Mitt Romney since he ran for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 1994 (I was a contributing columnist for The Boston Globe back then). In that campaign, on the night that he won the GOP nomination to face Senator Edward Kennedy in the November election, he appeared on the 11 o’clock news looking like the future of the Republican Party. He positively shined.

Sen. Kennedy appeared on TV shortly thereafter, appearing inebriated. Watching it at my home in Dedham, I thought, Wow, Kennedy could actually lose this thing. I was not the only person who thought this. Many of my Democratic friends were genuinely alarmed.

The Kennedy campaign counterattacked with a series of campaign commercials that featured Romney as Bain’s Dr. Evil; throwing people out of work, canceling their health care coverage, ruining their towns, destroying their very lives, all so he could line his pockets with “one billion dollars.” The Romney campaign never responded. Kennedy won in a walk.

When the Obama campaign dusted off the Kennedy-Shrum 1994 counterattack with (basically) identical ads, I was certain that the Romney high command would be ready not just with a response, but a kicker: “Wait until he unleashes the Bainiacs on the federal government. You’ll pay money to see that chain saw massacre.”

But…nothing. And by the end of the summer, at the GOP convention, when the Romney campaign finally did address the Bain issue (but you had to be watching C-Span to see all of it), it was way too late.

6. The Romney campaign seemed almost allergic to new ideas and new thinking.


In all the years I followed Mitt Romney’s political career, two things struck me. First, the world’s best management consultant (Romney) always seemed to hire second-rate political consultants. Second, he never said anything interesting.

On the Sunday before the election, The New York Times ran a piece by Clay Christiansen from the Harvard Business School on how current capital gains tax policy was detrimental to building companies for the future. It was an excellent piece and (I think) right on the money. It was something Romney could have said, over and over again. But he never did. Romney could have endorsed Simpson-Bowles. He never did. Romney could have taken the recommendations of leading technology executives on how to streamline the federal government. He never did. One could go on and on (and on).

If it is true that the Blue Social Model is unsustainable – and that seems (to me at least) inarguably true – the task of the person not defending the Blue Social Model is to propose the next model, or at least what the next model might look like. Romney did not do that, at all. That was a huge mistake.

7. Big Blue won a reprieve.


Four states (and many of the cities within them) – California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey – are reeling under the weight of unfunded pensions liabilities and unfunded or seriously underfunded retiree health benefits. As it happens, these four states are pillars of the Blue Social Model.

Had Romney been elected president, he would have heard their appeals for a federal bailout as follows: “Let’s see, four hopelessly profligate states that voted overwhelmingly against me want me to bail them out? Let me think about that.” And then he would have said, “How does never work for you?”

In the event, California went all in on The Blue Social Model (details here), President Obama was reelected, Democrats increased their margin in the U.S. Senate and picked up (at this writing) a few seats in the U.S. House. Chances of a Federal bailout rose accordingly, although there remains the not insignificant obstacle of Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor.++

8. President Obama doesn’t have a mandate; he has leverage.


In a country as deeply divided (on political issues and by urbanity) as ours, the notion that any candidate or party is going to win a “mandate” is probably not in the cards. What President Obama did win Tuesday night (along with the pickups in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House) was leverage.

And the truth is, he doesn’t need a mandate, he just needs sensible policy ideas. He can start by picking up Simpson-Bowles and owning it. That will alleviate some of the concerns people have about fiscal cliff-walking. He can even tweak it a bit by hammering $1 million-plus income earners with a higher tax rate all their own.

He can adopt the technology executives’ blueprint for streamlining government operations (former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano did a great job cobbling that together).

He can do some (relatively) easy tweaks on Social Security means-testing and age requirements. He can consolidate Medicare and Medicaid. The list goes on. The point is that he has the leverage to get things done. Gridlock is only certain if he tries to refight old wars.

And the truth is that getting a big deal done on Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security is probably something that only a Democratic president can get done. I’m not at all convinced that Romney could have moved these “entitlement” issues one inch forward toward resolution.

9. The campaign consulting industry needs fresh creative.


Have the ads ever been so dreadful? I don’t think I saw one ad this year that was even close to what BBDO routinely produces for its corporate clients. The Super PAC ads were especially insulting. Which leads to the next point:

10. American politics as a category continues its self-destruction.


Roughly speaking, over $1 billion was spent this year on negative campaign commercials. Basically, every two years, the American political parties and their candidates tell the electorate that politics is a filthy, rotten, corrupt business filled with lying weasels and thieving scoundrels. Not surprisingly (and not without reason), the electorate increasingly believes that politics at the national level (and on down) is a cesspool.

Combined with a malignantly intrusive and increasingly reckless media, the net effect is to make any sensible person avoid political life at all costs. Talent goes elsewhere. The political system suffers. It’s bad and it’s getting worse. The quality of congressional representation in Washington has declined precipitously.

11. The force field that held the GOP together (de-elect President Obama) has now dissipated.


The centrifugal forces that threaten to tear the party apart are back at work. The Republican establishment will immediately coalesce around Jeb Bush; the cover story being that he offers hope with the Hispanic community, the reality being that everybody knows where they stand in Bush World and promotion is always possible through hard work. The populist wing of the party will say: Enough moderates, we need one of our own and, by the way, we do all the damn ground work. The loons will say what loons say. It won’t be pretty, and it is likely to end badly for the GOP.

12. Chris Christie is finished.


Karma rules. Endorsing President Obama on national television the week before the election (and that’s what he did) will long be remembered by GOP activists everywhere. What goes around, comes around. Loyalty is the single most important attribute among professional politicians. Christie was fundamentally disloyal when it mattered.

13. Richard Snyder emerges.


When Sen. Susan Collins ® was reelected in Maine in 2008, it was the most impressive statewide election victory of that cycle. Why? Because she won 60% as President Obama (D) was carrying Maine with 60% of the presidential vote. When you go into the teeth of a gale force headwind and reverse the numbers at the top of the ballot, that’s mojo.

This year, the headwinds for GOP down-ticket items were fairly strong in Michigan. President Obama carried the state by a comfortable 9-point margin (54–45%). But Governor Rick Snyder ® won two key referenda that kept the state’s labor unions in check, he defeated a proposal to require a two-thirds supermajority to raise taxes, and barely lost a fourth initiative validating his efforts to deal with collapsing municipal finances.

Governors Scott Walker and John Kasich are constantly on television, advertising themselves as future leaders of the GOP. But Snyder has emerged as the Midwestern GOP’s most effective governor. He’s going to be a force in GOP national politics.

14. Punditry is dead.


Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame and The New York Times built one incredibly accurate projection model. Editors and publishers and electronic/digital news producers around the country, take note.

On the night of the election, for a brief time, Silver’s “column” accounted for half of the roughly 1-million-visitor-per-minute traffic at nytimes.com. Half.

Who needs pundits when the lad has a nearly perfect model? Why are we paying all these gasbags to tell us who’s going to win when we can just syndicate Silver? One suspects that, in the future, Silver (and others like him) will replace the punditry. It’s cheaper and, it turns out, the product is of higher quality.

Last night, unable to get home because of the snowstorm, friends were kind enough to pick me up at the train station and put me up for the night. I asked them if they were surprised by the election results. They both said, “No, not really, we read that guy in the Times on Monday, and it was sort of exactly as he said it would be.” They were kind enough not to mention that I was wrong.

Someday Nate Silver, too, will be wrong. But for the time being, he’s the champ.

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