What Sunk Mitt: GOP Extremism

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Robert Brent Toplin recently retired from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and is currently teaching this semester at the University of Virginia. He has published several books on politics, history, and film and operates a website, www.politicsoftheusa.com

Credit: Flickr/DonkeyHoty

When analyzing the 2012 election results, pundits are focusing on Democratic and Republican strategies. They note that Barack Obama’s organization effectively defined Mitt Romney early in the campaign by characterizing the Republican as a heartless business investor. Pundits note, too, that Obama more effectively won the public’s confidence, convincing people that he cared sincerely about their problems. Also, important, the Democrats ground game operated like a well-oiled machine. Armies of volunteers ensured that backers of the president turned up at the polls on November 6.

The Democrats and Barack Obama created a more successful campaign operation, but that is not the only explanation for their electoral victory. The 2012 contest revealed that ideas still count. Democrats more effectively associated with ideas of the middle. Republicans eagerly embraced ideas of the far right.

Republicans vigorously attempted to portray Obama as an extreme leftist, but that identification never stuck. The president promoted himself as a moderately progressive leader who a sought a balanced approach to the nation’s problems. Obama spoke favorably about private enterprise and entrepreneurial innovation, but he asked the nation’s wealthy citizens to “pay a little more” in taxes. Regarding foreign affairs, Obama presented himself as a tough defender of the nation’s interests. He talked about coordinating tough international sanctions against Iran, but he resisted pressure to rush into military action.

Obama came across as a man-in-the-middle to many voters, but Mitt Romney closely identified with radical positions of the GOP.

Perhaps Romney could not avoid taking extreme stands on major issues. Participation in the Republican primaries had been a high-pressure experience. GOP candidates pushed each other to the right as they tried to present themselves to states’ voters as authentic and committed conservatives. Romney joined this effort awkwardly when he described himself as “severely conservative.”

Pundits dispute whether Romney truly accepted the radical right’s vision or he acted like a strong right-winger to satisfy the GOP’s base. Whatever the case, Romney’s move to the margins on key issues created serious vulnerabilities. He appeared to stray far from the American mainstream.

Many Americans believed that Washington should not to grow too large or become too expensive, but they rejected Mitt Romney’s strategy of bad-mouthing the federal government throughout the campaign. When Romney faced a question in the primaries about FEMA, the agency responsible for dealing with emergencies such as Hurricane Sandy, the Republican contender said that such relief efforts can be handled better by the states or by private enterprise. That response resonated with the conservatives; it did not appeal to independents that learned about it during the general election. Lots of Americans felt uncertain about the Affordable Care Act, but they were not comfortable with Romney’s broad rejection of legislation that resembled his own efforts to improve health care when he served as governor of Massachusetts. By announcing that he would attempt to eliminate “Obamacare” on his first day in the White House, Romney pleased the right wing of his party. Millions of Americans liked specific provisions in Obamacare; Romney’s remarks left them feeling uncomfortable. Voters worried that Medicare might not be solvent when they retire, but they were not satisfied with Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s talk about turning Medicare into a voucher program for Americans currently under the age of 55. Romney and Ryan later tried to soften that language, but their initial remarks left a damaging impression.

The message that Ronald Reagan recited numerous times in the 1980s -- that government is not the solution to our problems; it is our problem -- no longer resonates in the same way. Even though many voters were not as confident as Democrats about Washington’s potential for jump-starting the economy, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, or promoting equality, they did not accept the judgments of militant conservatives, either. Voters were suspicious of the GOP’s vigorous rejection of the federal government’s role in economic affairs. Some were alarmed by Mitt Romney’s 2008 op-ed article, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” They appreciated efforts by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to rescue GM and Chrysler.

Mitt Romney also allowed his campaign to be associated with far right positions on social issues. Romney’s stand on abortion troubled many women. It left an impression that, as president, Romney might appoint individuals to the Supreme Court who would attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade. Mitt Romney’s insistence that marriage should be restricted to unions involving a man and a woman, also troubled voters. Attitudes toward same-sex marriage have been shifting quickly in the direction of greater toleration, especially among young adults. On immigration, as well, Romney embraced radical positions. He talked about “self-deportation” by illegals and applauded Arizona’s harsh immigration law. Hispanics were alarmed. They flocked to the Democrats.

During the final weeks of the campaign, Mitt attempted to pivot. He tried to appear more moderate. Surprisingly, in the first debate Romney said a few nice things about governmental regulation of business affairs, and in the third debate he spoke about international affairs without employing the bellicose language of his earlier speeches. But that strategy made him look like a flip-flopper. He had already staked out extreme positions on controversial issues. Obama simply reminded viewers of Romney’s earlier comments in the second and third presidential debates.

Ideas still count in presidential elections. In 2012 radical ideas undermined the Republican Party. Their expression left Mitt Romney sounding like an extremist, and they also hurt a few Republican senatorial candidates who appeared to stand outside the political mainstream.

It will be interesting to see how Republican leaders and conservative voters react to the 2012 elections. They may conclude that their party has been moving too far to the right since the 1980s and it is now worthwhile to tact more to the middle. On the other hand, they may conclude that Mitt Romney was not an authentic conservative. The key to future success, they could argue, will involve the promotion of candidates and programs that are more compatible with a far right agenda.

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