The election of 2012 was the perfect status quo event. On November 6 Americans by the millions went through a massive exercise of going to the polls and voting, only to awake the next morning to find that nothing had changed—other than a welcome respite from the incessant phone calls from the campaign headquarters. There was the same president, the same majority party in the House of Representatives, and the same majority party in the Senate. John Boehner was still Speaker of the House, and Harry Reid Majority Leader of the Senate. Above all, the election seemed to offer no feeling of renewal, no sense of a new direction for public policy.
Yet in this very sameness, it was not hard to discern that the country was now a different place. If, as both candidates acknowledged, America was set on a path of fundamental transformation—with a form of nationalized medical care and a dramatically higher level of government involvement in society—then the simple act of keeping the status quo was one of the most important "decisions" in American history. The 2012 election served to consolidate what Barack Obama had already set in motion four years earlier, even if his campaign, for tactical reasons, did not always emphasize this fact.
Not so the Republicans, who promised to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and to begin to reduce government involvement in the economy and society to pre-2008 levels. Their failure to win the presidency spells defeat. By not losing, Obama can now safeguard the measures passed during his first term. Future disputes will have to deal with the new order's consequences, but the order itself will not be wholly undone. The politics of America will resemble more the "blue" model of California and Illinois, which focus on coping with the added demands of a larger government, then the "red" model of Indiana or Ohio, which have sought to hold the line or scale back what government is asked to do.
Yet when it comes to enacting a governing program, the 2012 election was hardly favorable to President Obama. He won no mandate for a new major agenda—indeed, he hardly bothered to ask for one, except for raising taxes on the wealthy. The aim of his campaign was to retain the keys to the presidential office, at virtually any cost. He succeeded by hanging on. Obama made history in 2012 almost as much as he did in 2008. For the first time, an incumbent won re-election to a second term while receiving a smaller share of the vote than in his first term. In 2008, he had received 53% of the vote; in 2012 it was 50.4%. All other victorious incumbents—most recently Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—gained strength, Obama lost it. This singularly unimpressive result was obscured on election eve by his singularly impressive victory in every state in which the two candidates had actually engaged: Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Watching these states fall one by one on election eve was like witnessing a juggernaut.
The drama of Obama's victory does not, however, change the basic facts. The 2012 election leaves unsettled the question of which party can claim to speak for a majority of the American people—a dispute that has been going on for the past two years. For those on the Left, the narrative of contemporary politics properly begins with Obama's election in 2008, which signaled a break from the old politics and launched a new era of progressivism supported by a political realignment. For many on the Right, the starting point is the 2010 midterm election, which produced a majority for Republicans in the House of Representatives and brought a huge shift in the GOP's favor in gubernatorial seats and state legislatures.
Each side pressed its case, and in the aftermath of 2010 both camps seemed prepared to wait for another election to decide the contest between these two conflicting mandates. Now that election has taken place, but it produced no definitive victory. The results are closer to a standoff: a narrow presidential win for the Democrats, a House of Representatives that remains Republican, and a Senate that is Democratic. Meanwhile, at the state level Republicans hold their considerable advantage.
Already many commentators have turned to the 2012 exit polls to weave a narrative of resurgent progressivism. The argument is that the voter groups that are growing—minorities, unmarried women, the more secular-minded—are all parts of the progressive coalition. By contrast, the Republican base, relying chiefly on dying white males, is consigned to the dustbin of history. This shift in demography certainly helps to account for why the GOP, despite high hopes, did not recapture the presidency. Beyond that, the progressives' optimism seems premature. It is a stretch to see a robust majority coalition in 50.4% of the population, especially in the case of electing an incumbent president who had all the advantages of his office, who faced no competition for the nomination, and who had four years to build a formidable organization.
What's more, the Republican alternative, Mitt Romney, suffered from being a rich person defending capitalism (which hurt him among the working class), and he stumbled into a hard position on immigration in the primaries in order to defeat Texas governor Rick Perry (which hurt him with Hispanics). He proved to be a very good candidate, close to the best Mitt Romney that Romney could be. But one can certainly imagine other Republican candidates having greater appeal, in terms of both personal rapport and sensitive policy positions, to some of these expanding demographic groups. And one can imagine other Democratic candidates having less appeal to these groups than Barack Obama.
Any party that loses a presidential election is in need of self-examination, and this is all the more the case today in light of some of the changing demographic realities in the country. Yet that examination needs to avoid trying to score imaginary points at the expense of make-believe adversaries. From one side of the Republican Party, there have been rumblings that the party lost again in 2012 because it chose a moderate candidate who did too little to stress certain social issues and to attack Obamacare. Even if there were merit in these criticisms, the entire point is moot. It is pure fiction to think that moderates ever imposed Mitt Romney on the party. He became viable in large part because many of the more conservative alternatives chose not to enter the race and because those who did so were never really plausible nominees.
On the other hand, some are claiming that the election was lost because Romney had to make peace with extremist forces in the party who prevented him from going more quickly to the center to attract more swing voters. To become viable, it is suggested, the party will need to reinvent itself. Again, the point is moot. There would be no Republican Party unless it contained a large conservative component. A party made up of moderate Republicans would quickly be absorbed by the Democrats and cease to exist. In any case, these factional labels are often arbitrary. The best strategy for the GOP lies in selecting conservative candidates credible enough to convince their more enthusiastic supporters to forgo promoting positions in national politics that would destroy the chances of achieving a majority. Constructive self-examination means looking in that direction.
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This article is adapted from a longer essay that will appear in the forthcoming Fall 2012 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.