David Frum

11.25.12

How to Close the Empathy Gap

In this weekend's Weekly Standard, Jay Cost walks right up to the front door of Mitt Romney's electoral problem - and then turns aside and walks back away again.

Obama’s campaign against Romney, which portrayed him as an out-of-touch plutocrat, appears largely to have been successful. Romney’s favorable rating in the exit poll was just 47 percent, with 50 percent holding an unfavorable view. By 53 to 43 percent, voters said that Obama was “more in touch with people like” them, and by a staggering 53 percent to 34 percent, they said Romney’s policies would favor the rich instead of the middle class.

In other words, Romney lost in large part because of a yawning empathy gap. Typically, this plagues Republican candidates to some degree, even victorious ones, but it was pronounced this year, and appears to have been determinative. The voters who showed up on Election Day identified more closely with Obama than Romney, and those who stayed home presumably identified with neither. Importantly, this problem transcended age, race, ethnicity, and gender. Compared with Bush in 2004, Romney simply failed to connect with people.

All true, so far as it goes. But it's very important for Republicans to understand that Romney's failure to connect with people was not a mere personability deficit. George W. Bush ran in 2004, let's not forget, as the candidate who had created Medicare Part D, the costliest expansion of the welfare state since the mid-1970s. Romney ran in 2012 as the candidate of the Ryan plan. That's the difference.
 
Which is not to suggest that Republicans make a habit of championing huge, unpaid-for government programs. That's not the party's job. But it's important that Republicans emancipate themselves from two illusions: (1) that their problem is immigration; and (2) that their problems can be fixed by more charming candidates. 
 
The Republican problem is the party's disconnect from the experiences and challenges of middle-class Americans in the 21st century. Start there, and work forward.