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November 08, 2012

Why We Lost, Gabe's Version of the Story

People telling themselves that we had an insufficiently conservative candidate, that having a more conservative candidate would have made a difference, are kidding themselves. We didn't lose because of conservative or even liberal issues. We lost because of cultural issues -- binders, Big Bird, birth control, and blame Bush. Those four issues would have dogged ANY Republican candidate, regardless of their conservative bonafides.

That, if you want to skip the rest of this post, is the point. Republicans didn't lose a policy debate. They lost a PR contest. And the hardest part is that we insufficiently understood that we were even fighting on cultural grounds and not for political issues.

Binders, Big Bird, birth control, and blame Bush are not conservative or liberal issues. They're cultural issues. And the Left seized them and never let them go for the final two months of the campaign. Romney stood up and said "it's the economy." Swing voters answered: "but how are you different from Bush?" They weren't listening to our argument. They were listening for those cultural signifiers that would reassure them that the candidate was like them.

If there's one thing to take away from this loss it's that you can't force voters to pay attention to political issues. Remember now, swing voters are already a "special" group of people. They don't want to take sides. Politics is icky for them. So trying to persuade them on political grounds is not an efficient use of time. You have to persuade them on cultural grounds.

Swing voters really didn't want to think about the economy. But they sure had lots to say about Sandy clean-up. About Big Bird. About birth control and, God help us, rape. Those cultural issues that Democrats seized -- binders, Big Bird, birth control, and blame Bush -- went largely unrebutted by Romney.

To be honest, they were ignored by just about all the conservative commentariat too. I mean, they're ridiculous topics. Binders? Really? I'm as guilty as anybody else. I was standing here in my office complaining about having to write about something as frivolous and stupid as binders. But it turns out that swing voters are pretty ridiculous people. Go figure. Boy, don't I wish I'd paid more attention to binders now. The people who were frivolous enough to think binders was important were exactly the swing voters we needed to talk to, but didn't.

We should have suspected it after the foreign policy debate. I mean, these men are so close together on foreign policy as to be almost indistinguishable. All that was left was the *cultural* policy: how do we relate to other countries. And Obama's great at being the Great Relator. In the cultural consciousness, he's still bouncing off the Bush years, reassuring everyone that he's different. Romney didn't do that except very briefly right at the end of the campaign.

When I talk about rebutting these cultural issues, I mean a campaign of rebuttal. Almost every Obama ad on TV and radio I heard in the last two days of the election was about abortion and birth control. And they went totally unanswered. Romney's ads during the same period were about the economy. The war on women accusation went entirely unanswered except a few times at debates or on the stump.

It's because we thought those cultural issues were stupid, and, sure, they were. But we weren't supposed to be convincing ourselves. We were supposed to be convincing the neighbors who don't want to be partisan. SNL nailed that point perfectly in their "undecided voters" skit. It's not precisely that swing voters are dumb. It's that they've got other interests than partisans like you and me.

There was only one time during this election when Romney excelled on a cultural issue. It was in July. It was the response "we built that." That was Romney's rebuttal to Obama's "you didn't build that" gaffe and it resonated. For a brief period, we made the President and his supporters into a cultural punchline. That resonated with voters. Because it was cultural, pre-politics.

But "we built that" happened very early in the cycle and we never offered another cultural issue. Obama had several in the final two months. Birth Control. 47%. Big Bird. Binders. And, briefly (thank you, Candy Crowley), Benghazi. The nearest Romney came to a winning cultural issue after "we built that" was Clint Eastwood's empty chair. But that was a little too hokey for younger folks. The response to that chair cut right across generational lines. Older people loved it; younger people loved to mock it.

Put in the simplest terms: Republicans need to find a way to make fun of Democrats on something other than political grounds. Something to cackle over at the water cooler. It's easy to laugh at Democrats when you're safe among Republicans, though. That's preaching to the choir. "He ate a dog" kills among Republicans. It doesn't work so much among swing voters.

We used to be good at this. Think how we mocked Kerry and turned him into a punchline. We turned his words against him -- "for it before I was against it" -- and riffed on that to stick him with the "flip-flopper" label. That was cultural. Not political. We made Kerry out to be a squish and a traitor (thank you, Swiftboat Veterans) and it stuck. It had nothing to do with politics, or perhaps it was pre-politics.

But we didn't do that this time. This time we kept our eye on the ball: "it's about the economy, stupid." Well, yes and no. We were too busy fighting Bill Clinton. We forgot that Obama excels at this cultural stuff. We scorned the Left for their "Dear Leader" propensities, but we failed to offer a rebuttal to it. We told voters that Obama's politics were wrong, but we failed to offer a cultural alternative.

So we lost.

Now, I'm not saying that we should have been fighting on ONLY cultural grounds. Obviously, we have to fight the Democrats' disastrous politics. But we have to offer some cultural signifiers in addition to politics.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 09:30 AM

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