By Tim Montgomerie
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Only 48 hours after Mitt Romney lost his bid to be president David Frum had published an eBook explaining 'Why Romney Lost'.
It's not a long book and I take away the following key observations from it:
(1) Romney should have won this election. When economic conditions are bad – and they were bad – and the incumbent wins then the election wasn't a "close" run thing. Incumbents should lose in these conditions, argues Frum (as they've been doing in most other parts of the world).
(2) On page one David Frum states the most important thing: "In poll after poll, big majorities described the Republican nominee as favouring the wealthy over the middle class". AEI's Henry Olsen has also zeroed in on this issue – in my view rightly. In 'What voters want – a prez who cares', he writes:
"The conservative and Republican challenge can be summed up in one question from the exit polls. The pollsters asked voters which of four characteristics they most wanted to see in their president. Mitt Romney won among voters who chose three of those characteristics: shares my values, is a strong leader and has a vision for the future. What’s more, he carried them heavily, by between nine and 23 points. In all, 79 percent of voters selected one of these characteristics. Romney lost because he lost among those who chose the remaining characteristic — by 63 points, 81-18. That characteristic? Cares about people like me."
Boom. Voters want conservatives who care "about people like me". Let's say that again because it's the number one challenge: voters want conservatives who care "about people like me".
Frum notes that again and again the GOP didn't talk about issues of importance to middle America. Republican politicians hardly said a word about payroll tax, he notes, but 80% of Americans pay more of that tax than they do in income tax. The whole 47% debacle reinforced this sense of us-and-them separation.
The Tea Party has lost the GOP voters. Frum echoes Fred Barnes in saying that in two successive cycles extreme GOP candidates have meant the GOP has failed to take the Senate. Frum goes further, however, arguing that the Tea Party has been a net loss for the Republicans, even in elections for the House of Representatives. In 1982 when Reagan was presiding over a similarly difficult recession the Democrats won 55% in House races. In 2010, in contrast, the GOP got just 51.4%. "The 1982 comparison suggests," writes Frum, "that’s like crediting the rooster’s cock-crow for the sunrise. Perhaps any out party will gain votes in any sufficiently bad economic year."
The Republicans enjoy government subsidy and want to deny that to others: “The GOP is a coalition of America’s fiscal winners. Its wealthy donors pay lower tax rates than rich people in any other advanced democracy. Its older, rural, Southern, and military voters benefit the most from federal spending.” In the Paul Ryan plan, says Frum, all of the deficit reduction pain was levied on younger, middle income taxpayers. As another Republican once promised – the deficit should not be balanced on the backs of the poor.
Media extremism in the 'conservative entertainment complex'. In the video below – discussing a theme in the book – Frum argues that "Republicans have been fleeced, exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex". Citing research that suggests Fox News viewers are less informed than other Americans he argues that Republican supporters were profoundly misled about the nature of the challenges facing the country, making them difficult to lead.
He adds that the style of conservative media has also produced an unattractive combative style:
“For a generation, a certain brand of political commentator has urged conservatives to think of politics as a form of warfare, and to regard their opponents as enemies. This way of thinking does its severest harm to conservatives themselves. It embitters them, isolates them, alienates them, and perverts their judgment of people and things. It causes them to disparage their most effective leaders and instead elevate those who offer confrontation in place of results. The irony is that by insisting so emphatically on ferocious, militant ideology, the GOP rewards most those who believe the least, because only cynics and nihilists will make the transition from the real world of governance to the make-believe world of party purity tests.”
In an article for Canada's National Post, Frum makes other important points about outreach to non-white Americans – not least by the simple act of listening.
'Why Romney Lost' is an interesting read. Although I recommend it, it also has some weaknesses. Frum's support for action on climate change will, for example, lead to higher energy prices for the lower income Americans that Republicans need to reach. Until green technologies are more mature it's a dangerous path for the GOP to tread. I see the Left's headlong rush towards immediate action on climate change as one of the ways in which conservatives can win over working and middle class voters. Stephen Harper in Frum's native country has certainly used his opponents' plans for a carbon tax as a wedge issue (eg here and here). More generally I worry about Frum's slightly casual approach to the broad range of socially conservative views. What voters rejected last Tuesday was more the unpleasant and extreme positions of candidates like Akin and Mourdock rather than sensible, mainstream social conservatives. It's also important to distinguish between issues like gay marriage where young voters are deserting the GOP and issues like abortion where young people tend to be as pro-life as their parents.
Overall, however, the message that Frum began with – and Olsen focuses on – the idea of needing to care about people "like me" – the middle classes rather than the wealthy – is not just central to the prospects of American conservatism but also to British conservatism. Uber-modernisers like Frum are a bit rosy-eyed about the Cameron model. If Romney deserves to be criticised for not winning in a recession then the same charge needs to be levied against Britain's Conservative Party. The Tories won just 36% in 2010; 4% more than in 2005 – which, in turn, was one of our worst ever defeats. It may be painful to say it but Tony Parsons wasn't too far wrong in today's Mirror – "Romney always looked far too much like one of the men who got the world economy into this mess to be fully trusted. Just like Cameron. And Romney always looked like an essentially mediocre rich man’s son whose birthright had fast-tracked him to glory. Just like Cameron." Parsons may be overegging his point but both UK Tories and US Republicans share this rich man image problem. Much more than the Left's idea that we are too white, too male and too right-wing – this lack of a commitment to social solidarity is the dominant challenge.