Political Ineptitude – A guide to Republican Presidential Strategy 2008 and 2012.

Thankfully the past few months of my life were filled with things to do, in particular finishing my dissertation, for otherwise I might have been forced to pay attention  to the terrible media swamp that is the 2012 Presidential coverage.  Because I am currently in the United States, I haven’t been able to avoid it. More specifically, since I am in Virginia. Thanks to the electoral college system, Virginia has been fortunate enough to be one of a only a half-dozen states that actually matters. Out of all fifty (God forbid the territories be allowed vote!). Therefore the radio, television and now, internet tubes are all currently saturated with political ads. Sadly these insipid pieces of pandering suck a fair amount of joy from my growing affection for the popular American sport of handegg, or as they call it here, American football. This post is about the fact that a lot of people have recently written off the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. They are right to do, so but for all the wrong reasons. For the reasons why we need only cast our memories back to the heady days of the 2008 election when a young Black man beat up an old white guy, to much cheering.

In 2000, when McCain narrowly failed to become the nominee as the Republican candidate for President, thanks to a despicable smear campaign by Karl Rove, many wondered who the  moderate McCain might have picked for his running mate. A question eventually answered when McCain, after kow-towing to the Bush administration and apologising for the terrible thing that was done to him by Bush, assumed the nomination of an ever-rightward veering Republican Party. It seemed like McCain was about to pick the former Democratic politician Lieberman in a deft move that would solidify McCain’s credentials as a moderate and a man of compromise. In the light of recent political decisions and votes, both McCain and Lieberman’s titles as ‘moderates’ appears to have been premature.  However back in 2008 this seems to be the centrist ticket. I have little doubt that a McCain/Lieberman ticket would have won the 2008 election. The reason why is the same reason that the Republican Party appear to be a successful and powerfully branded political party, but in fact, they are a party in a terminal death spiral. McCain, in the heady rush of campaigning and listening to his advisers forgot the simple fact that a Republican presidential nominee doesn’t need to appeal to the extreme right to get their vote. In an election between a Black ‘law professor’ Democrat and a white ‘war veteran’ Republican any bigoted and/or right-winger will come out and vote for you regardless of who your running mate is going to be. McCain never needed Palin to win, he simply needed to  challenge for the moderates in the middle. With the surge in enthusiasm from the left (false though much of it was for Obama, as we now see from his first term in office) it would be easy to paint the other side as the extreme force in politics.

Romney reenacted this disastrous mistake and threw the election away when he selected Ryan as his running mate. In an effort to fire up a base  – a base that didn’t really need firing up, after all, a larger part of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim now than in 2008 –  he has lost any chance of contesting the middle ground.  The ’47 percent’ comment that Mother Jones gleefully waved in the air simply told us all what we already knew, i.e. what exactly Romney believed. As such it was simply icing on the cake for Obama, like his supposed bump from the Democratic convention and Romney’s failure to get a bump from the Republican convention.

So. what does challenging for the middle ground mean? It does not mean winning the moderate vote, it simply means splitting it, weakening it, and appearing capable of compromise. It means that the Republican candidate look like he is speaking to the moderates. A perfect example of this was the ‘Compassionate Conservatism‘ of George W. Bush’s campaign (coupled with the collapse of the Democratic Catholic voting bloc) that won Bush the 2000 election despite a hawkish vice-president. But both McCain and Romney have painted themselves as hawkish, neo-lib, right-wingers, when they needed to present themselves as moderates. Partly this is the fault of the Republican nominee selection process which has encouraged this extremism. But mostly it is the fault of the two candidates themselves who maintained their right-wing edge post nomination, fretting over alienating a base that actively fears this man (going so far as to doubt his nativity), although they could easily hunt for that middle ground. After all, everyone already knew that Romney flip-flops with the best of them, why not flip-flop once more and actually try to win the election?

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About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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