The Right Opinion

'People Are Afraid of Change'

Republicans got complacent. Now it's time to rethink.

By Peggy Noonan · Nov. 10, 2012

President Obama did not lose, he won. It was not all that close. There was enthusiasm on his side. Mitt Romney's assumed base did not fully emerge, or rather emerged as smaller than it used to be. He appears to have received fewer votes than John McCain. The last rallies of his campaign neither signaled nor reflected a Republican resurgence. Mr Romney's air of peaceful dynamism was the product of a false optimism that, in the closing days, buoyed some conservatives and swept some Republicans. While GOP voters were proud to assert their support with lawn signs, Democratic professionals were quietly organizing, data mining and turning out the vote. Their effort was a bit of a masterpiece; it will likely change national politics forever. Mr. Obama was perhaps not joyless but dogged, determined, and tired.

Apart from those points, everything in my blog post of Nov. 5 stands.

So what does it all mean?

It's hard to improve on the day-after summation of the longtime conservative activist Heather Higgins, of Independent Women's Voice: “A majority of the American people believe that the one good point about Republicans is they won't raise taxes. However they also believe Republicans caused the economic mess in the first place and might do it again, cannot be trusted to care about cutting spending in a way that is remotely concerned about who it hurts, and are retrograde to the point of caricature on everything else.” She notes that in exit polls Republicans won the “Who shares your values?” question but lost on the more immediately important “Who cares about people like you?” “So it makes sense that many … are comfortable with the Republicans providing a fiscal brake in the House, while having the Democrats 'who care' own the Senate and the Presidency. And that is what we got.”

Ms. Higgins wasn't happy with it but accurately reported it.

It is and has been a proud Republican assumption – a given, a faith – that we are a center-right country and, barring extraordinary circumstances, will tend to return to our natural equilibrium. That didn't happen this time, for reasons technical, demographic and I think attitudinal: The Democrats stayed hungry and keenly alive to the facts on the ground. The Republicans worked hard but were less clear-eyed in their survey of the field. America has changed and is changing, culturally, ethnically – we all know this. Republican candidates and professionals will have to put aside their pride, lose their assumptions, and in the future work harder, better, go broader and deeper.

We are a center-right country, but the Republican Party over the next few years will have to ponder again what center-right means. It has been noted elsewhere that the Romney campaign's economic policies more or less reflected the concerns of its donor base. Are those the immediate concerns of the middle and working classes? Apparently the middle class didn't think so. The working class? In a day-after piece, Washington Post reporters Scott Wilson and Philip Rucker wrote: “As part of his role, [Paul] Ryan had wanted to talk about poverty, traveling to inner cities and giving speeches that laid out the Republican vision for individual empowerment. But Romney advisers refused his request to do so, until mid-October, when he gave a speech on civil society in Cleveland. As one adviser put it, 'The issues that we really test well on and win on are not the war on poverty.'”

That is the authentic sound of the Republican political operative class at work: in charge, supremely confident, essentially clueless.

It matters when you show people you care. It matters when you're there. It matters when you ask.

The outcome was not only a re-election but on some level and to some degree a rejection.

Some voted for Mr. Obama because he's a Democrat and they're Democrats, some because he is of the left and they are of the left. But some voters were saying: “See the guy we don't like that much, the one presiding over an economy we know is bad and spending policies we know are damaging? The one who pushed through the health-care law we don't like, and who can't handle Washington that well? Well, we like that guy better than you.”

That's why this election is a worse psychic blow for Republicans than 2008, when a confluence of forces – the crash, dragged-out wars, his uniqueness as a political figure – came together to make Barack Obama inevitable.

But he was not inevitable after the past four years. This election was in part a rejection of Republicanism as it is perceived by a sizeable swath of the voting public.

Yes, Mitt Romney was a limited candidate from a limited field. Yes, his campaign was poor. It's also true that the president was the first in modern history to win a second term while not improving on his first outing. He won in 2008 by 9.5 million votes. He won Tuesday night, at last count, by less than three million.

Still.

Many things would have propelled Mr. Obama to victory, but one would be a simple bias toward stability, toward what already is. People are anxious, not as hopeful as they were. Two memories. One was a late-summer focus group of mothers who shop at Wal-Mart. One asked, paraphrasing, “If we pick Romney, does that mean we have to start over again?” Meaning, we've had all this drama since 2008, will that mean we're back at the beginning of the crash and have to dig out all over again? The other is a young working mother in Brooklyn, a member of an evangelical church, who told me 10 days ago her friends had just started going for Mr. Obama. Why? “People are afraid of change right now.”

When America is in a terrible economic moment and the political opposition can't convince people that change might be improvement, then something's not working.

* * *

A big rethink is in order. The Republican Party has just been given four years to do it. They should get going. Now. For clarity they could start with essential, even existential, questions. Why does the party exist? What is its purpose? What is possible for it in the new America? How can it prosper politically while leading responsibly?

From there, the practical challenges. Some of these are referred to as “the woman problem” or “the Hispanic problem” – they presumably don't like the GOP. But maybe they think the GOP doesn't like them. What might be the reasons?

Those who say no change is needed, who suggest the American people just have to get with the program, are kidding themselves and talking in an echo chamber. What will they do if the same party comes forward in 2016 to the same result?

The great challenge for the Republican Party now is how to change its ways without changing its principles. Its principles are right and have long endured because they're right. But do all the party's problems come down to inadequate marketing, faulty messaging, poor candidates? Might some of it be policies, stands, attitudes?

That will be a subject here in the future. For now, in politics as in life, you have to play the hand you're dealt. You have to respect reality. Which is where conservatism actually starts, seeing what is real.

15 Comments

Adrien Nash in Crescent Cityh said:

Thanks for the astute insights, but you're missing one, the most important one perhaps. Conservatism? It's not very realistic to talk about conservatism and the Republican party as having much in common. George Bush (both) was not a conservative. McCain was not a conservative. Romney and Ryan are not conservatives at all. So why would a conservative, or a libertarian feel compelled to vote for people who aren't much different from the other side when it comes to the size of government. Romney didn't talk about reducing the size of government in a way that appealed to people, nor made them believe that he meant it. His plan would have tweaked things in a time when we need a chain saw in order to save the future. Now it is pretty much impossible to save because there is no will in either party to inflict the pain that is needed to achieve a solvent government. 40% of federal spending is done with money that the government does not have, -that being the case for the last four years and for as far as the eye can see. That amounts to over a trillion dollars per year. That amount is the sum of the size of the inflated bubble of spending that should not be taking place because it is backed by nothing. That bubble was previously in the private sector based on credit. That bubble deflated and then the government took over by creating a new bubble of its own spending.

The American economy is like an addict hooked on mainlining the drug of unearned money, money borrowed or stolen from the future, -which will never be repaid, or if not borrowed, is created out of thin air. Where is there any hope of ending a one trillion dollar addiction? No one who wants that is a part of government because of the high price in deprivation that cutting it would exact. Hence there is no solution on any horizon.

Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 4:57 AM

Charlie in Boulder, CO replied:

If you don't think Paul Ryan is a Conservative, you have no idea what one is....

Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 11:30 PM

Cal in So Cal said:

The reality is, Peg, the voters decided to keep a looser in the White House
and let him keep pushing the country downhill - fast.

Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 6:49 AM

charlie in Tunkhannock, PA said:

So conservatism is seeing what is real, Ms Noonan??? Well here is what is real. On Fox election night, Kirsten Powers opined that Republicans have to recognize the country is growing more "brown", they have to learn how to appeal to minorities. What a stupid observation---any fool knows how to appeal to minorities and a lot of other special interest groups. Give them free stuff!!! Let as many brown skins as want come over the border for more free stuff. Bail out any troubled company having union workers with bloated contracts, imposing no penalties on the workers; just stiff the bondholders. Force lender debt reduction on extended borrowers who should be in bankruptcy. Promise low cost healthcare to everyone, even though there will never be enough revenue to pay for it, and fewer doctors to provide it. Don't dare to talk about cutting my entitlements!!!! And not one word in your piece about the role of Obama's fawning media pounding the ether with scurilous ad hominem attacks on one whom you lauded as a good man in your Nov. 5 column.

This election marks the beginning of no-turning-back from the march to national insolvency, the point where our paper will be worthless in the eyes of the world. It may take longer than it did for Greece because we have a printing press, but it is sure to happen. The end has been in the cards even as we began in 1776, as noted by this observer:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.-Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747–1813)

Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 7:32 AM

Ct-Tom in NC replied:

Excellent points, Charlie, and well stated.

Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 8:23 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

I believe the Republicans should stand down and let Odumbo do whatever he wants. Then, when everything falls apart, they can began to pick up the peices and take this country back to the values that worked so well before the "Progressives"(another word for Socialism) began taking us down that a path that has never worked and never will. No country can sustain its economic engine when you have more people on the dole than those that are producing. I am like Mac, I see rioting in the streets that very well could turn into a civil war. This time it won't be the North against the South but the takers against the makers. Stock up on food, water, necessities, and ammo. It just might be needed!

Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 8:48 AM

CA Conservative in Red Dot, Blue State said:

"As part of his role, [Paul] Ryan had wanted to talk about poverty, traveling to inner cities and giving speeches that laid out the Republican vision for individual empowerment."
Peggy, do you really think that the inner city thinks "empowerment" is a better idea than Obamaphone's, food stamps, free housing, $$ per kid, provided day care, et al? They weren't interested in the real prospects of jobs, what makes you think they will fall for empowerment? Seriously Peggy, get a clue!

Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 11:05 AM

Gregory in Yakima said:

Ms. Noonan has once again set the conservative situation in a light supported by reason and current events. It is evident our country is moving forward with an evolving economy and national demographics.

You can rage, dismiss, pine for a fantasy America that never was if you prefer, but insisting you were and are correct in your own pathetic assessments will only help you keep your repugnant instincts out front for others to be offended by.

You're deeply wrapped in phobic delusions. The rest of the country (including reasonable conservatives) have cut you loose. You're soon to be nothing more than a reminder of the intolerance Americans no longer believe in.

Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 11:20 AM

Craig in CA replied:

Greg - keep writing! These (and your follow-on comments) keep this from being an echo chamber!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 5:49 PM

Gregory in Yakima said:

There's a conservative group that's been around for a good while. They're newly resurgent with a mission statement reflecting true conservative philosophy. I think they call themselves "Republican Liberty Caucus"

They have professed government must be free of religious dogma. Their policy is not to have a policy on abortion. They admit the drug war is a loser. They do want fiscally responsible balance between budget and taxes. Their mix of libertarian and conservative philosophy and economic policy is the winning way for conservatives.

The 2012 Republicans have proven beyond a doubt that the 1950's are history. Mitt Romney is a good guy but a very poor choice as a candidate for President. Paul Ryan has yet to learn the same thing Romney forgot: Honesty is the best policy.

I know some of you have learned from this election. It's too bad you've learned the wrong lessons.

Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 2:18 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA replied:

Greg, It's vey apparent that you didn't learn anything during this election either. You keep harping on the 1950's but I'm pretty sure you weren't around during those days so anything you say is suspect. Nobody wants to go back to the 50's, We just want to go back to the values that made us a great nation. Hard work, being responsible for your own actions, taking care of your family, and not expecting someone else to pay for the bad choices you make. Somebody has to work and pay taxes to support those on welfare, free contraceptives, subsized housing, food stamps, free cell phones, EBT cards, and Medicaid. They have a right to complain about the unfairness of the system.

Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 5:38 PM

Gregory in Yakima said:

Old Sarge...Yes I do remember the 1950's communist hysteria and other dreadful chapters. Women were underestimated and controlled. African Americans were custodians, not teachers. Cars came without seat belts and everyone smoked, even on television.

That was the heyday of WW 2 vets, station wagons and vacations camping in the woods. People wore wool and cotton, silk was exotic and expensive, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were the coolest guys on earth.

The cold war was used by congress and others to justify outrageous frauds at tax payer expense. Dr. Strangelove was and still is a great movie on the subject. The John Birch Society exploited fears of Communist subversion and on and on.

I know you believe too many people are taking advantage of the system but I don't agree. I delivered food to seniors who are no longer able to shop but are trying to stay in their homes. Several are in their 90's including a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. One lady helped break German code during the war. She's on oxygen now, surrounded by cats and cat shit with the tv blaring.

Currently I drive people to their dialysis and other medical appointments. Some people work and get food stamps because the growers don't pay enough. There's some socialism for you. The growers are subsidized by tax payers in many ways but they keep all of their profits. Why don't you complain about farmers taking advantage?

Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 7:23 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA replied:

I noticed you didn't include the welfare queens in your post. No one wants old people to not be taken care of. It's those who have children they can't take care, those too laxy to work and game the system that we are pissed off about.. Why should one tax dollar go to support these parasites? Parasites is the only term to describe them. They live off the host (taxpayers) and never contribute one iota to the economy. Spend my tax dollars helping the old folks like you mentioned and you'll never hear any complaint from me. As for the farmers, we have large farms in this area who grow Vidlaia Onions. When Georgia changed its policy towards illegal aliens and many of them left the state those same farmers offered $12 an hour to help gather their onions. $12 an hour is pretty good wages for menial labor in this area. They lost quite an amount of their crop because there were no takers at that wage. Being on welfare paid better because of the benefits paid out. Subdized housing, EBT cards, food stamps, and free cell phones for sitting on your ass all day. What a great life when you have no shame or pride. Eventually it will be the downfall of what was once a great nation. I noticed you didn't back up your statement about fraud with any indications of what they were. Is that just another example of your making a statement with no proof to back it up?.

Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 8:32 AM

Jeremy in CA said:

Based on her writings, I've always felt that Ms. Noonan is a dingbat. She's recently been making the rounds on television, and she's confirmed my belief. This lady hasn't got a clue. Once in a blue moon she writes an interesting line or two, but if you put a monkey at a keyboard, you'd get similar results...

Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 12:30 PM

demsarerats in Oregon said:

lol, a bunch of psychobabble bs with no specifics from dear Peg, what else is new.

Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 6:07 PM