Before the election, both sides publicly agreed that voters cared more about the economy and job creation than anything else and that they would vote for the candidate who provided the best solutions.
Republicans bought this analysis and paid dearly for their gullibility, just as they had so often before. As it turned out, the election of 2012 was about everything except the economy, and Democrats won because they knew and acted on this secret.
Candidates sometimes make the mistake of believing their own rhetoric. They repeat their pat phrases and empty talking points so much that they forget how to think and to reason. That’s what happened to Republicans this year.
Their message sounded believable. Voters wanted Washington to fix the economy and get people back to work. The problem was deemed a federal government out of control with a trillion-dollar-a-year budget deficit.
So many things are wrong with this thinking that it’s hard to know where to start. Let me first confess that I wasn’t smart enough to see the weakness in this formula before Election Day. I can only explain it now, when it’s too late to help anyone.
The GOP has been unable to learn the lessons of presidential campaigns past. It missed what we can call the Bob Dole Effect. Mr. Dole and others ran for office on reducing the budget deficit — on bringing fiscal austerity to the nation’s capital — and, in the end, they lost badly. A call for deficit reduction is a political siren’s song, especially for Republicans, and has only led to calamity.
The policy is too vague and too harsh to be widely acceptable in an election setting. The concept of government is too large and complicated for voters to get their minds around. So is the economy and the deficit. These are abstractions that have no meaning in their lives.
Voters don’t care about these things as a driving force. They may say they do when a pollster asks. They may even say that they will vote on those issues. That’s a lie. These are distant concepts over which most people know they have no control. They treat them with the arms-length disdain they deserve.
Sure, voters would like a better economy, a smaller, more effective government and lower deficits. They know deep inside that whether they get those things or not would make not a bit of difference to them.
Deficits are indeed a terrible problem. They may even be weighing down the economy and preventing job growth. None of that touches the hearts of average voters, and politicians should stop trying to focus on them.
Let’s be straight about this. Connecting deficits to economic difficulties is a doctoral dissertation that not even economists would bother to read. Voters might well consider the thesis interesting, but then would ask, “Well, what are you going to do for me?”
Mitt Romney was correct when he said that Democrats had given gifts to various interest groups and that helped President Obama win re-election. He misses the larger point. At least Democrats were concentrating on the smaller items that affect voters personally, something Republicans didn’t manage to accomplish.
Mr. Romney and Republicans instead tried to attract votes with academic gobbledygook, and painful gobbledygook at that. Why would someone vote for a candidate who promises something that he knows the candidate can’t deliver — like resurgent economic growth or a government that actually works?
On top of that, the central effort — “fiscal responsibility” — is both intangible and harsh, not exactly a winning combination. Republicans need to discover what Americans really want — those small, digestible, attainable things. That would be a good start on the long road to political recovery.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.