This blog, contrary to all appearances, is not permanently abandoned. However, posts have become non-existent. This is because I am spending my writing hours working on a book articulating Catholic Populism. Once I finish, I expect to go back to blogging regularly. Until then, this may be the last post in a long while.
However, I feel the need to comment on the incompetent campaign performance of Mitt Romney in the 2012 elections. Opponents of free will love to claim that something was inevitable after it has occurred. These people will say that given the state of the American populace and the candidacies of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, Mitt Romney could not have won. His roots in Wall Street made it inevitable that he would be opposed by the American people as an out-of-touch plutocrat, they say. Others will say that the only hope would have been to nominate someone more moderate (Giuliani is the only such person who comes to mind) or more conservative (such as Gingrich). All of that is a load of crap.
Mitt Romney could have won but instead did not.
Mitt Romney ran an elitist campaign and Barack Obama ran a populist campaign. That is why it has been evident for months who would win this race.
The person running the populist campaign has won every election for decades.
What is a populist campaign and what is an elitist campaign?
The populist campaign is one that makes the argument that the election is about a moral choice. It defines the ideologies of the two candidates and the direction that they want to change the country as diametrically opposed. It portrays the election as dramatic. It trusts the people to understand the issues enough to understand the direction they wish to take the country through their selection of the candidates. It seeks polarizing and divisive contrasts between the candidate policies. It attacks or minimizes the all-important resume of the elitist campaign’s candidate. It de-emphasizes bipartisanship in favor of arguing that the American people need a fierce advocate to stand up to evil special interests. And it tends to focus on moral issues, since they are most clearly about fundamental principles. Its primary accusation is that the opposing candidate is immoral. Its advertisements tend to be filled with contrasts, accusations, warnings, and policy differences.
The elitist campaign claims that both of the opposed campaigns want the same result but that the candidate supported by the elitist campaign is more competent at delivering that result. It presumes the most important difference in the campaign is the kind of expertise each candidate has. It assumes that instead of deciding which direction the country ought to go, the people are merely competent to decide which kind of expert they want. The campaign runs primarily on the resume and expertise of the candidate. It attacks the other campaign for being too partisan. It typically claims to be above partisanship and proclaims the ability to reach across the aisle. It often accuses the other campaign of being melodramatic. Its primary accusation is that the opposing candidate is incompetent. Its advertisements tend to be filled with statistics, promises of bipartisanship, and experts.
It is a case of the polarizer vs. the pragmatist, the ideologue vs. the moderate, the man with the plan vs. the man with the resume, the the moral agenda vs. the pragmatic agenda.
Another election a lot like this one (a populist incumbent campaign against an elitist challenger) was Bush v. Kerry. Bush declared he was fighting evil Islamists. Kerry scolded him for having been melodramatic on the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Kerry touted his resume as a war hero and member of the foreigns relations committee as key to the expertise Bush lacked. The Bush campaign organized Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of veterans who had known Kerry and argued that his valor in combat was radically over-hyped. Kerry claimed to be more pragmatic and moderate in working with allies in the war on terror. Bush accused Kerry of being too cowardly to stand up to evil men abroad. Bush also attacked Kerry for supporting same-sex marriage and partial birth abortion. Kerry refused to engage on issues but had facts arguing that Bush was weak on foreign policy. Kerry accused Bush of presiding over a polarizing partisanship.
In this election, Obama claimed he was fighting for economic fairness against entrenched special interests. Romney said Obama was melodramatically fighting the very people who created jobs. Romney touted his business experience at Bain Capital and Governor of Massachusetts. Obama attacked Romney’s Bain Capital tenure as greedy and immoral. Obama ran ads on issues like abortion and taxes. Romney refused to engage on those issues but continually cited statistics illustrating Obama’s poor performance on the economy. Romney accused Obama of being unable to reach across the aisle.
This script happens every single election. The pragmatic moderate has never won. Ever.
To win, a candidate must illustrate stark moral choices to the American populace.
Did Romney have an opportunity to run a populist campaign?
Mitt Romney had three opportunities to portray Obama in a polarizing way. He could have argued that Barack Obama had attacked religious liberty through the HHS mandate. This message would have resonated in fiscally liberal but religiously conservative Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio. He took a pass on this opportunity in the first debate and ran no election-time ads on this. Mitt Romney could have attacked the Obama Administration on Benghazi as an example of Obama’s unwillingness to listen to his own Ambassador warning about the ascendancy of Islamism in Libya, proving that he was too ideological to prepare for Militant Islam. He passed on this issue in the third debate and never ran ads on it. And he could have attacked ObamaCare and the individual mandate as unconstitutional. But he never mentioned the word “Obamacare” in any of the ads for his campaign.
However, Mitt Romney could never have levied any of those attacks without acknowledging that Barack Obama wanted to take the country in a different direction. He would have had to argue that Benghazi was not a lack of leadership but a systematic Administrative-wide denial of the ongoing dangers of Islamism. He would have had to argue that ObamaCare was not only bad for pragmatic budgetary reasons but also due to its invasive deprivation of American liberty. And Romney would have had to argue that Obama was hostile to religious liberty, an issue on which the challenger refused to engage.
The reality is that despite his populist rhetoric and campaign style, President Barack Obama does not have a populist policy agenda. The only issue where he seems to be more populist than Mitt Romney is immigration (though Obama destroyed immigration reform in 2007 and probably cannot be trusted on the issue). Immigration hurt Mitt Romney badly by making Latinos the only portion of the electorate where he did worse than McCain. Romney also hurt himself by failing to exploit the joint weakness of both Obama and Bush, who both pushed a regressive, elitist, easy money monetary policy.
Although the President’s policies push the boundaries of acceptable elitism in US politics, Obama’s campaign style is so populist that swing voters — who are less political — can be forgiven for thinking that Romney is more elitist than Obama. Barack Obama made a moral argument for the policies of the Left. And Romney insisted that he and Obama wanted the same pragmatic solutions but that his own resume was better for that outcome.
Game. Set. Match. And so predictable …