Michael Tomasky: Obama Is Winning Because of the Shrinking GOP

The economy is weak and Americans are unhappy. But Obama’s ahead because the GOP is an aristocratic party that favors the super rich. And Mitt Romney is its perfect poster boy.

07.15.12 8:45 AM ET

Mitt Romney’s present travails must surely seem shocking and offensive to Republicans, both panjandrums and rank and file alike: “His is a great American success story. How can this be bad? The controversy must be all the fault of that evil liberal media and the Democrat Party!” Well, folks, sorry, but it’s not. If you’re willing to spend two minutes scouring the landscape for explanations rather than enemies, it might strike you that outsourcing is a real issue in American life—millions of citizens have been affected by it, and by definition, none of them for the better. That the ongoing Bain saga is such a shock and outrage to conservatives shows me only that conservatives are profoundly out of touch with the moderate center of the country: It helps explain why you selected this man as your nominee, and it further helps explain why he’s losing to an incumbent who, given the current economic conditions, ought to be pretty easy to take out.

The race is close, and of course Romney has a decent shot at winning. But the fact is that by every measure, he’s behind. He’s behind, a little, in national polls. He’s behind by more in the swing states. And behind by still more in the electoral college conjectures, where Nate Silver gives Obama 294 votes. Obama leads—narrowly, but outside the margin of error—in Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, and Nevada. If he wins those and holds the usual Democratic states—and yes, he’s up in Pennsylvania, where Romney has been sinking fast; only Michigan is really close—he will have won, even with maybe $1.5 billion thrown at him, a not-particularly close election.

Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. But the fact is, as I wrote at the beginning of the week, Romney should be six points ahead. At least four. The congressional Republican strategy—disgraceful but successful—of opposing Obama on everything has largely worked. The biggest thing Obama did manage to pass was wildly unpopular, though matters are improving for him a bit on the health-care front. Obama was soundly rebuked in the mid-term elections. And yet for all that and more, Silver has Obama pegged at roughly a 66 percent chance of winning. That’s not insurmountable in July, but if that’s still the number after both conventions, it’s pretty close to over.

Why? One reason is that, as Peter Beinart argued yesterday, Obama is simply a lot more likeable than Romney. Certainly no arguing with that. Blech! But there’s more to it. It’s the whole Republican Party that’s not likeable.

Thomas Jefferson argued roughly that it was in the nature of mankind to divide itself, wherever there be free government, into two basic factions: an aristocratic party that wishes to “draw all powers...into the hands of the higher classes,” as he once put it; and a party that opposes that one, representing the broader people. The GOP has, I admit, done a marvelous job of convincing the media and even some liberals that it is the party of the people, because of its hold on the white working-class majority (a segment that is fast dwindling, by the way—electoral demographer Ruy Teixeira reported recently that this bloc will constitute a sizeable 3 percent less of the electorate this year than it did in 2008—the minority vote will overtake the white working-class by 2016 or certainly 2020).

The Republican hold on this bloc is real, but it is, as we all know, completely about race and culture. I say this not to insult these voters. Far from it, in fact. I don’t think they’re stupid people. I think they’re entirely rational and have decided that culture is more important to them than economics, and so they’ve thrown in with the GOP on cultural grounds, even while they must know on some level that the party does not represent them in the least economically. But they accept the deal, and it permits the people who are the real heart and soul of the GOP, the corporate titans and the plutocrats, to call whatever economic shots they wish.

But their crossover appeal, shall we say, is limited. Throw in their lickspittles on Capitol Hill and in the right-wing media, and their neo-Leninist political tactics, and the picture gets even worse. The lot of them look like a bunch of grim Pharisees, and it’s all too obvious that all they really care about is cutting rich people’s taxes. It’s not a coincidence that, just a year after the Republicans took power in the House, and the public had a good chance to size them up, the GOP as of January was at its lowest point in terms of party-identification percentage since 1988, just 27 percent. The Democrats have lost ground, too, but at least they’re still in the low 30s.

Back to Bain. It’s interesting to think back now to the GOP primary. Romney’s Bain experience was nothing but a plus then. Oh, yes, he was attacked on “vulture capitalism” grounds by Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. But those attacks did in Perry and Gingrich, not Romney. They elevated Romney. The base rallied around him at that point, and the establishment ditto. It wasn’t so much that people suddenly decided they loved Romney. They were punishing Gingrich and Perry for resorting to “left-wing” attacks. But if the Bain controversy is hurting Romney, and most indications are that it is, that would appear to mean that more Americans than just left-wingers are taking the issue seriously.

But Republicans high and low couldn’t see this, because the party has no moderate faction anymore. The GOP today is a rump amalgamation of plutocrats and the people who service their air conditioning. Its middle has been hollowed out. If it had had a middle, someone within the party might have been able to issue warnings that Romney’s c.v. maybe carried some downsides. This may sound ironic, since Romney is considered the moderate of the group that sought the nomination, but in terms of biography, he’s the least moderate of all of them. In terms of biography, he’s a pretty perfect expression of what the GOP has become.

Mitt might win. A presidential election is a menu with only two options, meat and fish. And if fish has $1.5 billion behind it, and is financing a successful drive to keep meat supporters from being able to vote in key states, then fish can pull out a victory. But the odds are against it for a good reason, a reason that Jefferson identified.