How the Right Wing Lost in 2012

From a Bang to a Whimper

The right wing has lost the election of 2012.

The evidence for this is overwhelming, yet it is the year's best-kept secret. Mitt Romney would not be throwing virtually all of his past positions overboard if he thought the nation were ready to endorse the full-throated conservatism he embraced to win the Republican nomination.

If conservatism were winning, does anyone doubt that Romney would be running as a conservative? Yet unlike Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, Romney is offering an echo, not a choice. His strategy at the end is to try to sneak into the White House on a chorus of me-too's.

The right is going along because its partisans know Romney has no other option. This, too, is an acknowledgement of defeat, a recognition that the grand ideological experiment heralded by the rise of the tea party has gained no traction. It also means that conservatives don't believe that Romney really believes the moderate mush he's putting forward now. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the conservatives are forgiving Romney because they think he is lying, what should the rest of us think?

Almost all of the analysis of Romney's highly public burning of the right's catechism focuses on such tactical issues as whether his betrayal of principle will help him win over middle-of-the-road women and carry Ohio. What should engage us more is that a movement that won the 2010 elections with a bang is trying to triumph just two years later on the basis of a whimper.

It turns out that there was no profound ideological conversion of the country two years ago. We remain the same moderate and practical country we have long been. In 2010, voters were upset about the economy, Democrats were demobilized, and President Obama wasn't yet ready to fight. All the conservatives have left now is economic unease. So they don't care what Romney says. They are happy to march under a false flag if that is the price of capturing power.

The total rout of the right's ideology, particularly its neoconservative brand, was visible in Monday's debate in which Romney praised one Obama foreign policy initiative after another. He calmly abandoned much of what he had said during the previous 18 months. Gone were the hawkish assaults on Obama's approach to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, China and nearly everywhere else. Romney was all about "peace."

Romney's most revealing line: "We don't want another Iraq." Thus did he bury without ceremony the great Bush-Cheney project. He renounced a war he had once supported with vehemence and enthusiasm.

Then there's budget policy. If the Romney/Paul Ryan budget and tax ideas were so popular, why would the candidate and his sidekick, the one-time devotee of Ayn Rand, be investing so much energy in hiding the most important details of their plans? For that matter, why would Ryan feel obligated to forsake his love for Rand, the proud philosopher of "the virtue of selfishness" and the thinker he once said had inspired his public service?

Romney knows that by substantial margins, the country favors raising taxes on the rich and opposes slashing many government programs, including Medicare and Social Security. Since Romney's actual plan calls for cutting taxes on the rich, he has to disguise the fact. Where is the conviction?

The biggest sign that tea party thinking is dead is Romney's straight-out deception about his past position on the rescue of the auto industry.

The bailout was the least popular policy Obama pursued -- and, I'd argue, one of the most successful. It was Exhibit A for tea partyers who accused our moderately progressive president of being a socialist. In late 2008, one prominent Republican claimed that if the bailout the Detroit-based automakers sought went through, "you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye." The car companies, he said, would "seal their fate with a bailout check." This would be the same Mitt Romney who tried to pretend on Monday that he never said what he said or thought what he thought. If the bailout is now good politics, and it is, then free-market fundamentalism has collapsed in a heap.

"Ideas have consequences" is one of the conservative movement's most honored slogans. That the conservatives' standard-bearer is now trying to escape the consequences of their ideas tells us all we need to know about who is winning the philosophical battle -- and, because ideas do matter, who will win the election.

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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As Mr. Dionne writes, "We remain the same moderate and practical country we have long been." Romney clearly distances himself from the Tea Party agenda. It also seems clear that President Obama has moderated his public comments on many of the Left's core issues, such as gun control and the environment. The election does seem to be coming down to selecting an economic philosophy that will guide the details of resolving the fiscal cliff and promoting economic recovery. Both President Obama and Governor Romney are tuning their message to "win over middle-of-the-road women and carry Ohio." 

Concern for rebuilding middle-class prosperity and a preferential option for the poor, and our fundamental liberties, requires that we get past the thirty-second commercials. The TV commercials reduce Obama's economics to "make the millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share." He says nothing about reforming Medicare, although many economists and the neutral Congressional Budget Office agree that it will need changes to remain solvent in future years. 

We have not always been a "moderate and practical country." In the 1936 election campaign, FDR campaigned for a second term with his main theme that the rich were the enemy of the people, who would "gang up against the people's liberties." His Revenue Act of 1936 raised rates on upper incomes, imposed a personal income tax on dividends, thus establishing the double taxation of dividends, which remains today. This played well to an audience that was still enduring high unemployment, even with the WPA, PWA and numerous other stimulus programs in full operation. FDR won with an historic record of 61% of the popular vote, including the support of 82% of the country's Catholic voters. 

But three years later, the unemployemnt rate was still 14%, and almost one third of the nation's households had income less than the poverty level. FDR's plans may have seemed socially just and may have been aimed at a preferential option for the poor, but many formerly in the middle class were struggling for the basics and the poor, as often, suffered the worst. At the same time, investment in business was crippled, job growth was dismal, and incomes to charitable foundations and other non-profits were constrained when their services were still much in need.

We cannot morally or practically cut spending enough to save our way to prosperity, or even to a sustainable long-term balanced budget approach. Neither can we reach a balanced budget by relying on tax increases on upper incomes. As President Obama's own advisor, Dr. Christina Romer, concluded in a research paper, every tax increase since the end World War II has had a significant, negative impact on GDP. Periods of lower corporate profits and weaker stock prices produce lower donations to non-profits, and reduce the investment income from non-profits' endowments, as documented by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. We need to get beyond the political axioms and the TV commercials, and draw lessons from our history, to deal with the serious issues confronting us in ways that give effect to a preferential option for the poor. 

There are peripheral issues to this election's economic discussion. Many are concerned that the ACA is being co-opted to attack the religious liberty of Catholic institutions. We might wonder if some future Executive Order or Administration policy regarding Pell Grants, or other college assistance, will impose restrictions on academic freedom, perhaps even at Catholic universities. Will some future rule or policy decision about Medicare or ACA challenge the beliefs of Catholic hospitals and nursing homes about end-of-life issues? If we adopt economic and tax policies that weaken the finacial health of our universities and charities, are they not even more vulnerable to such interference? 

In 1931, Lincoln Steffens had spent a lifetime as a reporter investigating government corruption and voter behavior when he left us an interesting observation: "And Liberty...Don't we always abolish liberty when we are afraid or in trouble?" Today, it's a timely question. Let's draw carefully from our history, and rely less on the TV commercials. 

Joseph J. Dunn    Author of After One Hundred Years: Corporate Profits, Wealth, ad American Society.

 

As usual, the rightwing underestimates the American people's ability to see beyond personal interest.  Historically, Americans have understood the need to raise taxes, as long as they can see how the increased revenue will be used to save and support programs and activities they value.   As a Mormon who tithes 10 percent of his income to the church, Romney should understand the concept of giving up a portion of one's personal treasure for the common good.   Ironically, his dad, George Romney, started in politics campaigning to raise taxes to support Detroit schools.  Republicans haven't always been prisoners of Randian, free market individualism.

If justice prevails, Barack Obama will be returned to office to finish what he started with a chastened Congress that has to care about the common good for a change.  If not, Romney must be prevailed upon to live up to his late campaign lies....and at least some of the more altruistic ideals his father's generation cared about.

 

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).