Ten hard lessons from Tuesday
America is diverse. Deal with it. The sight of Bill O’Reilly whining about the white establishment being in the minority was as telling as it was racist. Twenty years ago we would have won, he said. That misses the point. What America did last night was full-throated affirmation of diversity of all kinds. It was undoubtedly the best night for gay rights in history, with Tammy Baldwin’s historic ascension as the first openly gay senator, gay marriage winning popular-vote contests in Maine, Maryland and Washington state — and a ban on gay marriage being rejected in Minnesota.
Don’t attempt illegal nonsense to subvert the democracy. The vote-suppression efforts across the country were as transparent as the old Jim Crow poll tests and taxes. What they did was infuriate and engage the electorate. This election wasn’t stolen by apocryphal busloads of illegal voters. It was won by people who stood in line for six hours to insist on what the Constitution gives them — that precious right they were determined to preserve.
The electorate did not fall off a turnip truck. Mendacious messaging like the desperation Jeep ad in Ohio will backfire, and the backlash feels worse than the initial problem. You can’t tell people whose livelihoods were saved by a policy you opposed that down is up and tomorrow really should be yesterday.
Pandering to the “base” is perilous. The Republican Party has a Tea Party problem because it has allowed itself to. The echo chamber encouraged it and enabled it (see O’Reilly, above) and smart people like John Cornyn and John Boehner watched the trains collide. America is simply not, in large numbers, that conservative. A political garden where Mourdocks and Akins are allowed to crowd out moderates — nobody ever accused Richard Lugar of being a wild-eyed liberal — will not produce the desired result. Consider the balance of power in the Senate this morning. Then consider what the Tea Party has done for the Republicans in the upper chamber: Five seats squandered in two cycles. And the House is not immune. The banshee screamed for Allen West and Joe Walsh and even Francisco “Quico” Canseco last night. Michele Bachmann barely escaped.
The House Tea Party caucus is feeling a little like Custer’s 7th Cavalry this morning. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are the bright spots, but if they want to succeed on the national level, they need to lead the party in a direction where more voters live.
“Trust me” doesn’t get it done. The secrecy of Mitt Romney on everything from tax returns to the records of his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, and his inveterate position-switching, did not make selling his inscrutable tax plan any easier. Similarly, “repealing Obamacare but keeping the good parts” always was a fairy tale. The hidden-ball trick doesn’t work very often.
If you must pander, do not alienate large chunks of voters in the process. The Republican Party should not have the gender gap and the “race gap” that it has. This was an unforced error. As flawed a candidate as he was — whose idea was it to nominate a corporate takeover and outsourcing artist on the heels of a horrible recession? — if Mitt Romney had been allowed to be moderate on women’s issues, which I suspect he truly is, and if he has not been pushed into the “severely conservative,” self-deportation-espousing immigration hawk he was in the primaries, he might have been president next January.
The system self-corrects. The Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008 because they had diverged from the path the country wanted to take. The Democrats lost in 2010 because they were arrogant and overreaching and didn’t understand the depth of the distress most Americans were feeling. And the Republicans lost this year, in part, because they thought they could fundamentally change the structure of Washington, and they dramatically underestimated the demographic sand shifting beneath their feet. Our system maintains its ability to judge such deviations relentlessly. The laws of politics are as immutable as the laws of physics. And any marketer will tell you: If you don’t know your market, or ignore its central truths, you’re not going to be successful. In that context, the Republicans in the House hold the key to what kind of party emerges from the ashes of 2012: a minority status that endures for generations, or a newly respected and effective alternative to the Democrats. If they continue to obstruct and disengage, they and the country will pay the price. Similarly, the Democrats must realize this was a 1 percent popular vote victory, not a mandate; that the country is still deeply divided; and they have to reach across the aisle in sincerity to make it work. That ultimately will take new congressional leadership.
“We’ve got to fix that.” As an aside, President Obama commented Tuesday night on the flaws in our electoral process that produce the enormous lines, disenfranchisement and disillusionment about our democracy. It’s not an aside, it’s vital. Depoliticize secretaries of state and the elections process. While you’re at it, draw the lines fairly. Gerrymandering in all its arcane forms has produced a House of Representatives where extremism has been rewarded and dysfunction has been the result. California, with citizen-led redistricting, took a step toward the honest embracing of the new demographics in this country. If we rid ourselves of gerrymandering, freely embrace universal voting and put the people back in charge of the electoral process, we’ll have a House of Representatives much more responsive to the public will. Free the electoral process for a more perfect union.
Retail politics still matters. Examples abound. The Senate victories of Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp did not happen because they had powerful machines behind them. They happened because the candidates themselves were genuine, leveled with voters one-on-one and ran smart, error-free campaigns.
Nate Silver is a freaking genius.
David McCumber is a columnist for the Hearst Newspapers.