Mitt Romney had not exactly been in free fall in the days after the Republican National Convention in August. Yet he not only didn't get an appreciable bounce from his prime time moment, President Obama came out of his own convention with the edge and never looked back as the Romney campaign's shameless shape shifting, as well as damaging gaffes exposing the candidate's true nature, sent waves of panic through a GOP hierarchy that lurched from smugness to concern to horror as Election Day approached.
The campaign's serial dysfunction, broken only briefly in the days after Romney's prevarication-filled star turn in the first presidential debate, was to continue through to a narrow popular vote victory and an Electoral College rout yesterday by Obama, who few pundits thought had a serious chance of being reelected as 2011 begat 2012 and the recovery from the Bush Recession inched along at a snail's pace with unemployment remaining high. Obama's victory is a stinging rebuke to Romney, running mate Paul Ryan and the ideological cesspool that the Republican Party has become.
Romney's custom-tailored shirttails turned out to be so short that the Republicans lost Senate seats that once were theirs for the keeping, sealing continued Democratic control of the Senate, while the Republican margin in the House remained pretty much unchanged.
One need look no further than September 11, not coincidentally the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the homeland by an Al Qaeda that Obama has substantially neutered, to pinpoint the day that the last wheel came off the Romney bandwagon. It soon became obvious that the candidate and his nannies didn't have a clue as to how to get the wheels back on. They resorted to a strategy of throwing everything against the wall in the hope that something would stick. Something did: A cosmetic makeover that positioned Romney as a bleeding-heart moderate, but that was not enough.
The reason was perversely simple: The campaign to take back America was built on a foundation of cynicism, lies, doubletalk and artifice of Orwellian proportions, while no presidential candidate in the modern era ever has had to put so much energy into getting his own party to accept him. Long story short, the Republican hierarchy did accept Romney but only while holding their collective noses, and as the results came in last night, some party bigs were openly disparaging him for what they saw as his blowing a sure thing.
It did not help that Romney, like the Presidents Bush before him, wanted to gut the Federal Emergency Management Agency and has called federal disaster relief "immoral."
Obama, like President Clinton before him, had revived FEMA, which was able to respond to Superstorm Sandy quickly and for the most part effectively in stark contrast to George Bush's belated and botched response to Hurricane Katrina. Polls showed overwhelming support for Obama's take-charge attitude and his view that government should provide aid in times of crisis, while storm victims in New York and New Jersey went to extraordinary lengths to vote and did so in surprisingly large numbers.
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September 11 was the day, as one pundit aptly put it, that Romney broke our deal. And in retrospect was destined to lose the most important presidential election since 1932.Some 5,000 miles away, mobs had attacked American embassies in Egypt and Yemen and a consulate in Libya in an outpouring of manufactured rage over a video titled Innocence of Muslims made by a shady California felon with right-wing backers that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a drunken torturer of women and children. Before the tear gas had dissipated, the young American ambassador to the nascent Libyan democracy and three other diplomats were dead.Following the protocol for such times of international crisis, politicians of every stripe rallied around the commander in chief. Except for Romney, who in an extraordinarily fact-free rush to judgment denounced Obama as being "disgraceful" because of a mild statement from the Cairo embassy issued before the attacks concerning the importance of respecting other people's religions. That is something that Tea Party jihadists and perhaps Romney himself do not.Romney defended his hissy fit in subsequent days as the largest of all the holes he had dug for himself became deeper -- yes, even deeper than the 47 Percent of Americans Are Moochers hole. Dissing Olympic organizers on a trip to London and Palestinians on a trip to Israel were one thing, but on September 11 Romney revealed himself to be a dullard and a hothead, not exactly traits that Americans look for in a would-be president.* * * * *Undecided voters in swing states were paying attention.
A few days after the September 11 debacle, the Romney campaign pulled all its advertising in Pennsylvania and Michigan, which had been two must-win states, and Obama widened his lead in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, the three other Romney must-wins. Then Obama went ahead in Iowa and Wisconsin, Ryan's home state, both once thought to be safe havens for the Republican ticket.
The news out of Ohio was especially grim because no Republican had ever been elected president without carrying the Buckeye State, as well as another sobering factoid: The candidate leading two weeks after the in-party's convention had gone on to win the Ohio popular vote in every presidential election since President Truman's come-from-behind victory in 1948, and while Obama's lead in polls there was never substantial, he never ceded it.
Except for that fleeting first debate bump in which some GOP undecideds who had voted for John McCain in 2008 moved into the Romney column and a "surge" more spin than real that was deftly marketed by Romney's handlers to a news media anxious for a close race, it was pretty much all downhill. What had been orchestrated to be a cakewalk became a slow motion collapse.
Here's why that happened:
* Romney was the default standard bearer for a Republican Party whose standards have become appallingly low. In the course of a brutal primary season, Romney eventually outspent and outlasted Newt Gingrich, who had demanded an open three-way relationship with a mistress who is his current wife; Rick Perry, who made a fool of himself whenever he talked about practically anything; Herman Cain, who had a zipper problem; the crackpot known as Rick Santorum, and the lunatic known as Michele Bachmann, among other wannabes.
* If a political campaign is a war of ideas, Romney was uncourageous and fled from them while Obama, as has always been his wont, talked large and used the power of his incumbency to full advantage. Romney made no bold pledges -- his 12 million new jobs mantra was a mathematically impossible subterfuge -- while his efforts to focus on the struggles of a middle class being bled out because of the Bush Recession and the widening gulf between the 1 Percenters and everyone else were ungenuine as the 47 Percent video confirmed.
* Romney's greatest perceived advantage was his business experience, but he was unable to get out from under the reality that he destroyed jobs as CEO of Bain Capital in the service of becoming filthy rich. For most of the campaign, his "plan" to fix the economy was predicated on the gauzy notion that the economy itself would defeat Obama, and it may well have absent slow but steady growth in employment.
* When pressed to be specific about how he would engineer an economic recovery, Romney trotted out the tired GOP mantra that prosperity is predicated on lower taxes on the wealthy, whose largesse will magically trickle down to school custodians and fast food workers, as well as loosening the reins of regulation on financial markets and the environment. When pressed further, he reached into his hat and pulled out those mythical 12 million jobs.
* Abolishing Medicare as it now exists, a centerpiece of Romney's domestic agenda, and replacing it with Ryan's voucher system was unpopular among elderly voters, as well as the Baby Boomers who represent a whopping 37 percent of the electorate. Many fled en masse from the Republican ticket once they understood that the sickest and poorest of them would in effect be put on a raft and sent out to sea.
* Woman voters fled from Romney in droves before and after his "binders full of women" gaffe in the second debate. The flub not only became a social network piñata, it confirmed that he was a male whose views about females were stuck in the 1950s.
* It appears that Romney's pledge to abolish the Affordable Care Act on his first day in office backfired. While the plan remains deeply controversial, many voters already are taking advantage of improved access to affordable care, a prohibition on insurance companies denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, while young adult children can stay on their parents' insurance plans until age 26.
* Giving the finger to Hispanics and other immigrants made strategic sense in the service of coddling Tea Partiers, but this guaranteed Obama a sizable bloc of votes from the fastest growing segment of the electorate as well as accelerated the GOP's dog-whistling descent into an ever shrinking Southern-based party of angry white men and their dutiful wives.
* Taking the concept of the flip-flop places it had never been, Romney simultaneously held opposing positions on issues ranging from abortion to Medicare to education to defense policy. He reserved more extreme positions for closed-door meetings with right-wing partisans and big-bucks donors and more centrist positions for public appearances and the debates, all the while lying through his ivories, most notably about what Obama would do to Medicare and the oft-repeated claim that Chrysler was moving Jeep production to China.
* Obama was off his game in the first debate, but so had been Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2004. As it was, Romney never debated that night but did "perform," which gave the news media a story line it craved despite the candidate's lying legerdemain. Obama not only bounced back in the second and third debates, he eviscerated Romney, and his third debate bounce turned out to be considerable because of Romney's weakness on foreign policy.
* He did not have a Bill Clinton to help energize his campaign. The former president gave a powerful convention speech, then campaigned forcefully and effectively for Obama, while calling out of retirement the deeply unpopular George Bush was not an option for Romney.
* First Lady Michelle Obama was a superb campaigner and did much to fire up the Democratic base. First Lady wannabe Anne Romney was a tone-deaf whiner whose overweaning sense of privilege and disdain for public schools, among others institutions fundamental to American democracy, was evident.
* Republican efforts to suppress turnout through draconian voter registration laws failed in every swing state where the GOP was the predominant party as courts rejected the laws outright or held them in abeyance until after the election, but the party still continued to try to suppress the minority vote right up to Election Day in Ohio and Florida, among other states.
* Democrats were able to substantially neutralize Romney's reliance on the super PACs through which his friends and former colleagues poured millions of dollars into his campaign by drawing on their own deep-pocketed donors, typically trial lawyers, labor unions and Hollywood, all longtime sources of largesse for the party. Meanwhile, Obama shattered his own record for attracting small donors while few small donors gave to Romney.
* * * * *Republicans, of course, are blaming everyone but themselves this morning for a disaster that Romney and the Tea Party own. And isn't it precious that Romney, whose self righteousness and contempt for the electorate were barely disguised, did as well as he did by abandoning the "values" that greased the skids for his nomination by adopting new "values" that in some respects were little different from Obama's?
The excuses already being ginned up range from the improbable to the ludicrous: Hurricane Sandy, Obama's new best friend New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the liberal media, massive voter fraud, fact checkers and, of course, minorities seeking handouts.
Denial in politics is nothing new. Democratic liberals fooled themselves through the first half of the 2000s, paying dearly in the first three elections of the decade. But the GOP has become a party of amnesiacs that is bereft of ideas, let alone vision, beyond a generic meanness that has done substantial harm to the body politic and country as a whole.
The party's leaders interpreted their 2010 successes as a mandate although they were no such thing. They believed that focusing on defeating Obama was more important than being patriotic partners and rolling up their sleeves to help engineer an economic recovery, while refusing to support no-brainers like a fully funded bill to create a Veterans Job Corps that would give vets an inside track for first responder jobs, one of many important legislative initiatives they blocked in the service of Just Saying No.
They believed that an empty suit like Mitt Romney could smack down a very real suit like Barack Obama, who unlike Romney had he won, will continue to be a president for all Americans. And as history will tell, a great one.
Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images