Thursday, November 15, 2012

What Could Have Been

So, Governor Romney has concluded that his failed bid for the Presidency was because President Obama outbid him with special incentives for favored constituencies.  What did he think was going to happen?  The Democrats campaign plan for decades has featured using taxpayer funds and borrowed money to attract votes.  But the truth is that the failure of the Romney campaign has much deeper roots and can be traced back to the Republican primary season.

What really happened in presidential politics this year was an orgy of negative campaigning.  The Obama people knew from the outset that their campaign would be completely negative.  They had a disastrous four year record in the President's first term so their only option was to try to destroy the Republican opponent.  They also knew that negative campaigns drive voters away from the polls.  So the Obama team designed a sophisticated plan for micro-targeting the voter groups where they had the greatest appeal, thereby assuring that in a lowered turnout election, they would get their voters out.

The Romney campaign also wallowed in negativism.  There was plenty of negative commentary possible given the failed Obama Presidency.  The attractive thing about just running against the President was that you did not have to get specific about the programs you intended to pursue and you did not have to communicate a governing vision.  The Romney team calculated that by staying vague they could preserve their governing options and further calculated that the country was so unhappy with the Obama Administration, that any alternatives they offered, no matter how undefined, would look good to a majority of the electorate.  It was based on this calculation that they used the Republican primary season to say little about their program, little about the candidate himself and  instead portray him as the only Republican capable of beating Obama.

It was that primary season that defined the Romney candidacy and foretold the Romney defeat.  I watched it from a unique vantage point as the national chairman of the Newt Gingrich campaign.  It was Newt's campaign, you may remember, that sought to make the primary season a debate about the big issues facing the country.  He proposed that the candidates lay out their vision and their programs for taking the nation in a new direction and refrain from attacking one another.  His concept got buried in Iowa under a barrage of negative advertising, much of it coming from a SuperPac supporting Governor Romney.  Newt, who led the field in early polls in Iowa, ran well behind Romney and Santorum when caucas night was over.  That first contest set a pattern for how the rest of the primary season would play out.

What became apparent was the lack of a coherent Romney message.  The polls in those early days showed that the main issue on the minds of GOP voters was who could beat President Obama in the general election. The Romney campaign's message was a claim that he was the only candidate capable of beating Obama.  But instead of convincing the country that was true by laying out a set of reform proposals, his campaign sought to destroy his opposition.  As each primary opponent emerged as a potential threat, the Romney money machine cranked up negative advertising to deliver a knock out blow to that opponent.  It worked.  By April he had the nomination sown up, but had a sullen party base that viewed  all the negativity as destructive.

What if the Gingrich proposal had stuck?  What if the primary had been run on higher ground?  Would Romney have won?  Perhaps.  He had many advantages; a substantial lead in fundraising, an organization built over several years, an attractive resume' including a distinct lack of disqualifying scandals, the support of much of the GOP establishment, and long list of prominent supporters from business and politics.  What he lacked was a consistent record supporting conservative values.  He could have laid out a conservative agenda that played to his strengths as a businessman and sought to convince the country of his sincerity and his capability.  But instead, he went negative and the nation did not get a good look at who he was as a person and what it was he stood for. And within weeks, the Obama campaign was able to tell their own negative story about him and set the stage for the Fall campaign.

The only glimpse we got of what could have been was the performance of Governor Romney in his first debate with President Obama.  Had that Romney been campaigning throughout the primary season, had that Romney dominated the tens of millions of dollars spent on campaign ads, had that Romney talked all year about the opportunities for all Americans that come from the practice of conservative policies, I have no doubt we could have won.

We should now know that when all you have is a campaign designed to destroy, the result is the destruction of your own credibility.  Sadly, I believe that President Obama, despite his political victory, has become smaller and less respected because he, too, failed the test of leadership.  That test is whether you are willing to take responsibility for your actions, whether you have a purpose beyond your own victory and whether you lift up rather than tear down. 

Governor Romney lost the election because millions of Americans were so discouraged by the negative campaign they had just witnessed that they never showed up at the polls.  Both campaigns and both candidates are responsible for that failure, but in the end the Obama campaign planned for it. The Romney campaign did not.