When all was said and done, this election did turn out to be 2004 again. A polarizing president with tepid approval ratings fended off a Massachusetts based challenger who proved surprisingly resilient, but whose tactical errors and vulnerabilities put an unbreakable ceiling on his appeal. The victory itself was a weirdly shaped bubble made partly of scaring up a base vote with ad hominem attacks on the persona and character of the opponent, and partly of one time, single issue alliances that lifted the beleaguered incumbent without gaining much for his ballot mates in his own party: In George W. Bush’s case, a same sex marriage ban that doubled the normal black Republican vote in Ohio, in Barack Obama’s, an adept use of Mitt Romney’s opposition to the automobile industry bailout to bolster Democratic white working class support in Ohio.
But winning in uninspiring form counts just as much as the grand sweeps like 1980 and 2008. The Republican Party’s defeat unmasks deep liabilities beyond the expected demographic shortcomings with Latinos and voters under 29 (who against all expectations, maintained their slice of the electorate at 2008 levels in the midst of an appalling job market for new college graduates). The electorate rejected Romney even in the face of exit polls showing that voters trusted Romney to handle the economy better than Obama; that they overwhelmingly viewed the economy as poor or mediocre; that they favored repeal of Obama’s signature healthcare initiative; and that they rejected Obama’s strategy of deficit reduction through tax increases.
The conservative base is smaller than it has been in three decades, with its share falling to 35% while liberals edged up to 24%, a narrowing advantage further diminished by the fact that about a fifth of that conservative base consists of blacks and Latinos who still overwhelmingly voted for Obama. The Republican conservative base seems perilously close to shrinking to white southern evangelicals, senior white males, and upper income Protestants.
That Obama more or less maintained the 2008 foundation of his victory, with the exception of North Carolina and Indiana, is especially striking given the weak-kneed nature of the Obama recovery and the fact that close to half the country now views the president, a figure once ascribed near mythical powers, in an unfavorable vein. One unavoidable conclusion is that the country’s skepticism toward the last four years was outweighed by a marginally wider distrust of what Republican rule would look like. Another is that the electorate’s affinity for individual elements of the Republican agenda never coalesced into their approval of a broader GOP governing vision.
Hence the seemingly conflicted choice to pair Obama with a Republican House that surrendered few members of its majority beyond districts with a history of Democratic strength. Keeping the House red preserves the check on the unpopular aspects of Obama’s rule, while electing Romney would have meant sanctioning a policy course that remained nebulous or disconcerting to many swing voters and moderates.
To be sure, a better crafted campaign would have filled in Romney’s policy goals more convincingly than the ritualistic invocation of five point plans and generic references to cutting regulation and producing more domestic energy. But that failure is not just a marketing flaw on the part of Romney’s ad men: it is a symptom of a modern conservatism that seems spent and resistant to innovation on some days, purely oppositional and reactive on other days. And the weightiest part of the recent conservative agenda, Paul Ryan’s budget plan, was barely mentioned and its details only intermittently defended. (The details of Ryan’s budget had their share of political pitfalls, but the scant attention to it by the Romney campaign surely contributed to the impression that the Republican wish list was being kept deliberately shadowy.)
The other risk for Republicans, as Fox News’ Britt Hume noted last night, is that the axis of gravity is shifting leftward, and that a center right electorate is more predisposed than ever to a view that equates conventional conservatism with a middle aged backwardness. The hardening of the Democratic edge in affluent Northern Virginia, the white professional female gender gap, and the historically poor Republican showing with Hispanics can all be linked to a value judgment about the insularity of the Republican coalition. It is not hard to imagine that Democrats will exploit their growing cultural edge by pushing harder on issues that seemed marginal a cycle ago, like a fifty state right of same sex marriage, or more aggressive regulation of faith based institutions.
Undoubtedly, Obama’s path toward consolidating his shaky majority will have its roadblocks. There are no more than a handful of Republicans who will reverse course on tax increases, especially given their negligible effect on deficits, and no obvious path toward a comprehensive immigration law (particularly when three Southern Senate Democrats are on the ballot in 2014) or climate change legislation. The notion that Obama will wade into legacy building territory like education reform or campaign finance reform is an editorial page fantasy that ignores the dollars teachers unions and other liberal interests just poured into his reelection, and the smoothness with which this administration has grown its own brand of DC influence peddlers.
So the aftermath of Obama’s slog to victory is, short-term, very much the gridlock that he rarely even promises to break any more: a Democratic majority without much of a sustainable Democratic agenda, and a Republican Party that has grown more comfortable on defense than offense. But defenses erode over time and the Republican base, limited as it was, will weaken even more by 2016. Convincing a skeptical center is about to become the preoccupation of the conservative project.