The best analogy I have heard for the election is that it was Bizarro 2004. It's a reference to an old plotline from Superman cartoons about a kind of alternative Earth where everything is the opposite. The idea is that this is just like the 2004 Bush vs. Kerry contest, but with the parties reversed.
Here is how Sean Trende describes the analogy.
"One of the more intriguing narratives for election 2012 was proposed by political scientist Brendan Nyhan fairly early on: that it was 'Bizarro 2004.' The parallels to that year certainly were eerie: an incumbent adored by his base but with middling approval ratings nationally faces off against an uncharismatic, wishy-washy official from Massachusetts. The race is tight during the summer until the president breaks open a significant lead after his convention. Then, after a tepid first debate for the incumbent, the contest tightens, bringing the opposition tantalizingly close to a win, but not quite close enough."
The analogy to John Kerry's campaign highlights something that a lot of pundits and politically active people on the right managed to forget during the campaign: exactly how unappealing a candidate Mitt Romney really was. Republicans knew he was unappealing because they tried to find somebody, anybody else, nominating him only after all of the other candidates rendered themselves unacceptable. (It is still hard to project which of the other major candidates could have succeeded. If far-out views on rape and abortion helped sink two Republican Senate candidates, for example, imagine what this would have done to Rick Santorum.) But once Romney was clearly the nominee, Republicans had months to come to terms with that fact, to look through Romney's record and find good things about him, and to remind themselves that he was better than the alternative. By the time they were done, Republicans had pushed to the back of their minds most of the reasons why they had disliked him in the primaries.
But a lot of voters who are not so politically engaged did not go through that process. They still instantly disliked Romney, and his campaign never overcame that. This is what I take to be the meaning of all of those voters—including a couple hundred thousand rural conservatives in Ohio—who stayed home rather than vote for him. The final numbers on this, by the way, show that Romney did ultimately exceed John McCain's 2008 vote total—but just barely. Which confirms that Republican voters were about as unenthusiastic about Romney as they were about McCain.
Jay Cost sums up voters' general dissatisfaction.
"If a single question on the exit poll captured the country’s lack of enthusiasm for both candidates, it was, 'Who would better handle the economy?' Only 48 percent chose Obama. One would think that would sink the president’s reelection chances, but of the 49 percent who chose Romney, only 94 percent voted for him, with the rest backing Obama or a third-party candidate. The same thing happened with the deficit: slightly more voters picked Romney (49 percent) than Obama (47 percent) to handle that issue, but Romney won only 95 percent of voters who trusted him more. That is Election 2012 in a nutshell: voters did not trust Obama to handle the tough issues, but even less did they trust Romney to represent them in the Oval Office."
Why did voters dislike Romney? For the same reason Republicans initially disliked him, and for the same reason voters disliked Kerry. It was not because he is awkward or uncharismatic or even because he departs from conservative orthodoxy on one issue or another. It was because he is a serial flip-flopper who has changed his position on just about every issue.
That is the real heart of Bizarro 2004. Mitt Romney was the Republican John Kerry. Remember that Kerry, too, emerged as the "electable" candidate after more ideological, conviction-driven candidates like Howard Dean flamed out in the primaries.
We should acknowledge that Kerry is a much worse person than Romney. Kerry launched his political career by volunteering as a mouthpiece for the far-left "anti-war" movement and slandering his fellow Vietnam War veterans as war criminals. (They would repay him with the "swift-boat" ads that helped sink his campaign.) Yet Kerry was not remembered by the public primarily as a former Communist sympathizer, but rather as the guy who admitted, about a military funding bill, that "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." He was a flip-flopper who tried to stand on both sides of every issue.
Voters realize that a candidate like this is only telling them what they want to hear to get the job. They realize that his real concern isn't the particular policy or promise that he is offering right now. His real concern is his own ambition.
Mitt Romney, too, has a history of ideological flip-flops on abortion, immigration, and most notoriously Obamacare, which was patterned on a health-care program Romney himself had championed in Massachusetts. But it's wasn't just the negative aspects of Romney's record that made this image stick. It was the lack of any positive message.
On a broad, non-ideological level, Romney really does believe in success, in achievement, and in American greatness. This is why he was at his best responding to President Obama's "you didn't build that" comment. For a while, I thought that might be enough to carry him through the campaign and steer him toward the big issues he needed to champion. But he focused instead on small, narrow policy ideas and avoided big ideological issues. He whiffed chances to explain and defend the Reagan legacy or free-market ideas, and instead edged farther and farther toward the bland, uncontroversial political center.
The first presidential debate gave Romney his best shot at winning the election, but his strong performance that night (and Obama's weak one) merely helped obscure Romney's lack of substance. In retrospect, a warning I offered at the time turned out to be more important than I thought it would be.
"From the perspective of someone who writes and speaks about politics for a living, the torture of this sort of event is that you’re sitting at home coming up with great arguments or comebacks that your guy could use but doesn’t. So I’m going to try to refrain from Monday morning quarterbacking, especially since the quarterback won. That said, there was one consistent omission that really bothered me, both because it indicates a problem with how Romney will govern and because it could hurt him in the election: his tendency to shrink from a vigorous defense of free markets.
"For example, he kept denying that he was going to cut taxes for the rich. Well, why the hell not? Implicitly, Romney conceded that taxing the rich is self-evidently the good and righteous thing to do.
"Note also that when Obama cited Bill Clinton’s administration as an example of the success of his approach, he also cited the Bush years as an example of the failure of Romney’s approach. The obvious rejoinder is: but what about Reagan? It would be the perfect contrast. Reagan came into office at a moment of economic crisis, with high inflation and high unemployment and the nation heading into its second recession in two years. Yet two years later, the economy was recovering sharply and unemployment was plummeting. The boom eventually produced almost three straight years of 7% growth. What a perfect contrast to Obama! And what an opportunity to contrast the success of a pro-free-market philosophy over a government-centered philosophy. Yet Romney tended to shy away from taking on that kind of big-picture philosophical debate."
And here's the big problem for Romney. When a candidate doesn't seem to stand for anything, when he doesn't seem to be motivated by big ideas or a cause, that invites voters to speculate about what really motivates him. In John Kerry's case, for example, a lot of voters concluded (correctly) that he was motivated by preening personal vanity.
In Romney's case, his ideological emptiness left him open to the Obama campaign's attack ads portraying him as a predatory "vulture capitalist" who was campaigning to represent the interests of the rich at the expense of the common man. Of course this is a leftist fantasy and an exercise in character assassination. And of course it was foolish and shortsighted for "low information" voters to let themselves be manipulated by a smear campaign rather than thinking through the issues independently. But what made this possible, what opened the window, was the fact that Romney did not clearly stand for anything.
This ties together all of the different threads of the election. This is why it wasn't about abortion or immigration or any of these side issues (regardless of the merits of reforming the Republican position on those issues). It wasn't about the positions Romney took, but about the positions he didn't take. It wasn't about a high-tech turnout operation by the Obama campaign. It was about all of the potential Romney supporters who didn't turn out because he didn't give them enough reason to do so. He was the man who wasn't there.
But if this is Bizarro 2004, then it's worth asking how the 2004 election result worked out over the long run. The voters didn't trust John Kerry, so they gave George W. Bush four more years to straighten out the War on Terrorism. When he didn't do it in two years—when things in Iraq actually got worse—they turned against him so decisively and permanently that voters still blame Bush for everything four years after he left office.
In effect, voters gave Obama four more years to turn around economy—but the impact of Obamacare is already dragging down the economy. In 2014, if unemployment is still high, if the economy still barely moving or has possibly lapsed back into recession—what then?
The failure of the left and its ideals is not a merely speculative possibility. It will happen. It is happening. Republicans' focus should be on preparing for what happens when that day comes—when we go into a new recession, or teeter on the edge of a debt crisis. This election was a giant demonstration of what happens when we meet that opportunity and aren't able to offer political leadership that is ideologically capable of offering a better vision. Republicans' top political priority right now should be to make sure that doesn't happen again.