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.