- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Barry Goldwater said once that he much preferred the drubbing he got in 1964 at the hands of Lyndon Johnson to losing by a whisker because it allowed him to go to sleep at night without wondering if the outcome might have been different had he gone to one more rally or said something different or had different ads or …

When a candidate and his party lose a close one, everybody blames everyone but themselves. Postelection hoopla aside, this year’s presidential contest was close. As a result, those who believe their candidate walks on water are blaming the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, supposedly forced on Sen. John McCain by wrongheaded advisers. They are wondering why Mr. McCain did or didn’t do one thing or another along the way to his defeat. Others are suggesting that Mr. McCain himself was the problem or blaming flaws in strategy that virtually guaranteed defeat.

All these charges should be taken with a grain or two of salt given the simple fact that they originate with folks whose advice was not taken and who are convinced that had the candidate only listened things would have been different.

Maybe some of the criticism is valid, but when the smoke clears Republicans will realize that the Obama victory may have been inevitable given the environment in which the race was run and that they were largely responsible for creating that environment. Only then will the rebuilding begin.

Any conservative honest enough to look at his or her party has to realize that we had it coming. The party of Reagan degenerated in the years since his death. The party of individual freedom and limited government morphed into something unrecognizable. Its leaders, in a perhaps sincere attempt to protect the U.S. homeland and prop up her economy, came to treat the Constitution as just a piece of paper to be circumvented or ignored at will. Men and women elected to restrain government became addicted to pork, earmarks and the use of public funds to buy votes. While piously lecturing us on family values and morality, many stood by as colleagues made a mockery of their words and fools of the voters who elected them.

President Bush presided over a domestic-spending orgy not seen since the days of the Great Society, and his aides rolled their eyes when conservatives wondered at the wisdom of jettisoning the very principles that brought Mr. Bush to power. By 2006, the chickens were coming home to roost. By 2008, voters were as disgusted with Republican hot air and incompetence as they had been with the Democrats in the ‘70s after a few years of Jimmy Carter and in the ‘90s when House and Senate Democrats seemed to be emulating the excesses of the final years of the Roman Empire with House bank scandals and stamps being traded for pocketed cash.

This year’s voters wanted to fire the Republicans and try something new. President-elect Barack Obama benefited greatly from voter outrage and rode it into the White House.

In the final analysis, there may have been little any Republican could have done to avoid the firing. Since Nov. 4, many analysts have been arguing that we have entered a new era; that Mr. Obama’s victory came in a transformational election that has permanently altered the nation’s politics. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, for example, argued that the victory means we live in a “left of center” nation not the “right of center” nation we thought we knew. These analyses comfort Obama partisans but simply don’t square with what happened.

First, Mr. Obama didn’t run as the radical conservatives believe him to be. He ran as a centrist with voters in battleground states subjected to his commercials favoring tax cuts and opposing nationalized health care. He told audiences he supported the Second Amendment and wouldn’t expand the availability of abortions. He came across as a centrist in the mold of the so-called “Blue Dog” Democrat centrists who successfully exploited voter antipathy to incumbent Republican congressmen in 2006 in Republican-leaning districts.

This strategy worked and is an indication that Mr. Obama and his managers realized that voters wanted to send Republicans packing because of their performance, not their values or principles.

Second, the hype about massive voter turnout turned out to be just that. Exit polls and turnout figures suggest that Mr. Obama won for precisely the reasons outlined above. Democratic turnout increased slightly more than 2 percent, and Mr. Obama drew slightly more support from voter groups across the board than Sen. John Kerry in 2004 or Vice President Al Gore in 2000. What Mr. Obama did was excite, organize and deliver a Democratic base.

At the same time, the Republican turnout dropped by nearly 1.5 percent. Some Republicans abandoned their candidates and more stayed home. Mr. Kerry lost with 40,000 more Ohio votes in 2004 than Mr. Obama got this year. States such as Ohio were winnable had elected Republicans lived up to their expectations in office and had the McCain campaign identified and gotten their voters to the polls.

None of this is meant to denigrate the campaign Mr. Obama ran. He raised more money than any candidate in history and spent it well, mastering the new technology Mr. McCain’s folks were barely able to understand. He performed flawlessly as a candidate and is only the third Democrat in more than 50 years to win more than 50 percent of the vote.

Once Republicans stop blaming their candidate and the media and stop whining, they can and will rebuild their party around common principles delivered by in-touch, dynamic conservative leaders. Four years from now, conservatives won’t be outorganized and outspent if they get back to basics and begin the hard work that needs to be done in the interim.

David A. Keene is the chairman of the American Conservative Union, the nation’s oldest and largest grass-roots conservative lobbying organization.

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