Failure to appeal to middle class doomed GOP ticket

Posted: November 12, 2012

President Obama may have scored a narrow victory Tuesday night, barely winning 50 percent of the popular vote. Yet his squeaker of a triumph not only represents a bigger loss for the Party of Lincoln, but also offers a critically important lesson.

Republicans and their standard bearer, Mitt Romney, were confident of consigning Obama to the same ash heap as the failed Jimmy Carter presidency. But Election Day hit them like a ton of bricks. Extending the tragic reversal of their three landslides in the 1980s, the GOP failed for the fifth time in six presidential elections to capture the vote of the people.

As in any presidential defeat, the Monday morning quarterbacks are out in full force assessing the carnage, searching for scapegoats. Keep in mind that the highly paid talking heads who are purveying advice for a party in crisis were the same cheerleaders who were reassuring nervous Republicans last week that Romney would be our 45th president.

Other than Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute, who warned of a Democratic victory on National Review Online early on Election Day, the conservative punditry were parroting the groupthink that the election was in the bag for the GOP. If if the prognostications of Peggy Noonan, Karl Rove, Michael Barone, Charles Krauthammer, Newt Gingrich, Fred Barnes, George Will, Brit Hume, and Larry Kudlow were so far off, why listen to their analysis now?

The experts may wish that Romney had put on the boxing gloves that helped him knock out his primary opponents, lament Gov. Christie's bear hug of the president at the Jersey Shore, and complain that the party's base is too white and religious. But the main reason the Republican ship went down has little do with strategy, tactics, or demographics. Nor is it related, as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly have suggested, to Romney's infamous 47 percent (a national group that includes retirees on Social Security and Medicare) of Americans who supposedly want no responsibility, only more government handouts.

Rather, it has everything to do with Republican leaders and insiders, including the presumed best and brightest of the conservative media and think tanks, who long ago dumped the girl that Republicans such as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan brought to the dance. That gal in question: Middle America.

Both Ike and the Gipper were gifted leaders who advanced public policies to build, protect, and expand the very middle class that elected them. The political class may harbor disdain for bourgeois America, but these popular Republican presidents understood that the promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" cannot be fully realized apart from a growing middle class, a 20th-century achievement that required careful cultivation through pragmatic "Hamiltonian" economic policies that focused on infrastructure, good education, and rising family income. If they were alive today, Eisenhower and Reagan would understand that our economic and fiscal woes are a symptom of a waning middle class, not its cause.

In contrast, 21st-century Republicans have traded a devotion to "average Americans" for a love affair with free-market and limited-government abstractions. Consequently, the Romney-Ryan ticket invested heavily in the notion that naked market forces, especially fiscal austerity and tax cuts for investors, would magically lift all boats.

The anxious electorate didn't buy this pitch, especially in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, where free-trade and outsourcing policies have drained away millions of manufacturing jobs. Appealing primarily to educated small-business owners - so-called "job creators" - the GOP lost the votes of the vastly more numerous but less educated "job holders" worried about not holding a job. Exit polls revealed that the electorate trusted Obama - running on the highest unemployment rate of any incumbent since FDR - to create more jobs than the heralded entrepreneur Romney.

If that weren't enough, the top of the ticket showed no awareness of how laissez-faire economics has dovetailed with the sexual-liberation agenda of the left in undermining prospects for millions of Americans, especially those without college degrees. It is no coincidence that globalization has undermined the economic security of Middle America at the very time that Democratic policies have destabilized the family through legalized abortion, distortions of marriage through no-fault divorce and same-sex union laws, federal birth-control mandates, subsidized day care, and gender-based affirmative action.

This may explain why Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, remained mum on social issues, as a robust defense of natural marriage, motherhood, and family life would have forced them to rethink their economic platform. Their abject fear of cultural flash points not only allowed the Democrats to make hay with the war-on-women canard, but also undercut GOP appeal to African Americans and Hispanics, most of whom embrace conventional family mores.

The sober reality is that America cannot survive without a flourishing middle class - and that expansive middle class cannot exist when manufacturing, family formation, and fertility are in retreat. Consequently, a party that wants to recover from two consecutive presidential-election beatings does not need consultants writing strategy memos outlining how to connect with slices of the voting population, whether unwed women, Hispanics, or young people.

No, the party simply needs to recover the Eisenhower-Reagan vision and stand with the broad middle class, the trump card of the electorate, against the collusion of the libertarian right and the social-liberation left. If it did that, the Grand Old Party might not only save itself, but also save the country.


Chat live with Robert W. Patterson on Monday at 1 p.m. at www.philly.com .


Robert W. Patterson served as a special assistant to the secretary of public welfare in Gov. Corbett's administration. E-mail him at rwpatterson79@verizon.net.

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