Election 2012: Myths, Lies, and Losers

Barack Obama’s victory was more than a defeat of Mitt Romney. The winner is 21st-century America.

On Election Day, Barack Obama was home in Chicago on his way back to the White House—and the Romney campaign was R.I.P., lurching its last ditch way back to Pennsylvania and Ohio. As the results rolled in, the ballroom in Boston descended into despair and the crowd in McCormick Place roared as the states were called and reelection was secured. But something more happened yesterday than in most presidential contests. Myths were confounded, lies proved unavailing, and there were big losers beyond Mitt Romney.

A few months ago, the conventional wisdom doomed Obama on the grounds that no incumbent in modern times had won with unemployment above 7.2 percent. In fact, voters thought the rate was 7.5 percent on Ronald Reagan’s triumphant morning in America. In addition, until Reagan, the benchmark would have been 5.6 points. What the Reagan experience suggests—and Obama’s success validates—is that the decisive factor is no fixed number, but the direction in which the economy is moving. And for this president, despite a GOP determined to block every measure for recovery, the economy picked up and unemployment more than ticked down in the final months of the campaign.

Another long-held myth holds that it’s better to run for president as a governor than a senator. But across more than half a century, the nation has sent two sitting senators to the White House—JFK and Barack Obama—and two sitting governors—Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, although the latter was selected by the Supreme Court, not elected by the voters. Richard Nixon and LBJ sat in the Senate before they sat in the Oval Office. Jimmy Carter and Reagan were former governors. So there is no preferable path to the presidency. And in Romney’s case, his governorship, purchased by pretending to be a moderate and then flipping afterwards to being “severely conservative,” reinforced deep concerns about the character of a candidate who refused to be specific on taxes and palled around in a TV ad with “legitimate rape” Todd Akin, who threw away a Republican Senate win in Missouri.

Two other myths were written in the events of this cycle rather than in the “rules” of a faux history.

The first is that Hurricane Sandy untracked Romney as he was rising in the polls. As Nate Silver demonstrated in The New York Times, the Mittmentum, such as it was, slowed and then “stalled” after the vice-presidential and second presidential debates. Obama’s defeat in the first let Romney into the race, but never reshaped a fundamental structure that accorded the President many more roads to an electoral vote majority—and back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But Republicans grabbed onto the storm myth, and will cling to it amid the post-election wreckage, as a useful, even essential excuse, a rationalization to sustain a central Republican myth. The country, conservatives insist, shares their determination to dismember government and in effect repeal the New Deal and the 1960s. The President didn’t maneuver to accommodate this; he confronted it with a most full-throated populist campaign of any Democratic nominee in decades. Clinton offered a modulated, soft version of a populist appeal in 1992—“Put People First”—before he retreated to triangulation four years later. And he never arraigned the forces on the other side—or explicitly asked the defining question: who’s on your side? That’s exactly what Obama did as he transformed 2012 from referendum into choice—whether the issue was Bain or the auto bailout, tax justice or immigration reform, equal rights for women and minorities.

His appeal in the final days of his last campaign echoed FDR’s denunciation of the economic Royalists—and Al Gore’s pledge to fight “for the people—not the powerful”— a mantra he regrets shying away from in the autumn of 2000. Here was the president in Ohio: “The folks at the top in this country, they don’t need another champion in Washington. They’ve got lobbyists. They’ve got PACs … But [the] people who need a champion are the Americans whose letters I read every night.” Bill Clinton, who roared masterfully through the convention and the campaign, took up the cry: “We simply can’t afford to give the reins of government to someone who will double down on trickle down … [to those] who want a winner-take-all, you’re on your own society.”

So the notion that 2012 was a “small” election strikes me as entirely wrong. Yes, there were sound bites, gaffes, and concocted controversies; there always are. But at the heart of the campaign was a contest between progressive public purpose and a reversion to the “hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing” government castigated by Franklin Roosevelt. Republicans assumed, or hoped against the evidence, that America was Paul Ryan country—a place that yearned for the GOP vice-presidential nominee’s plan to shred the social safety net. The evidence now is in the voting of 2012. It also came a few days earlier—and this is where Hurricane Sandy is relevant—in the common resolve, voiced so pungently by New Jersey’s irrepressible Gov. Chris Christie, that it is a good and noble thing for government to help people in need.

The Republican effort to compare the response to Sandy and Katrina was a pathetic, ugly play to exploit frustration about the inevitable complications of a cleanup that’s been handled remarkably well. What did the GOP want other than votes? A “heck” of a Brownie-like indifference? In any event, they didn’t get the votes—and 2012 has settled a cardinal issue about the kind of nation we are. Measure how consequential this election is in one now undeniable reality: Obamacare is here to stay. And so is financial reform. And so is student-loan reform. And the president now holds the upper hand on entitlement reform, balanced deficit reduction, and a tax system where everyone pays their fair share. This is no small thing.

Nor is the defeat of a brazen, unprecedented campaign of lies—which the Romney strategists presumed would work in an ad-heavy, journalistically fractured universe. Mitt’s pollster Neil Newhouse gloried in serial deception: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” It wasn’t; instead voters dismissed Romney’s reckless disregard for the truth—his claim that the president had engaged in “an apology tour”; that Romney’s health plan—he doesn’t have one—would cover preexisting conditions; that “we have fewer people working today than when the president took office”; that he intends “to keep our Pell Grant program growing.”

Amid the fusillade of lies, two in particular backfired. One was the claim that Obama “sold Chrysler to Italians” who are moving Ohio’s Jeep production to China. Romney’s ad here was an outright fabrication, and drew rare and blunt corporate denials from Chrysler—and extensive press and television coverage that picked the ad apart. The campaign persisted; it was a desperate move to trick Ohio workers into voting against themselves—and for the guy who proposed to let Detroit go bankrupt. How’d that go? Check the Ohio results.

To counter the truth that Romney-Ryan would replace Medicare with Vouchercare, the GOP fouled the airwaves with the lie that Obama had cut more than $700 billion from Medicare to finance health reform. The response from Obama’s side was swift—there had been no cut in benefits. Who won that ad war? Check the final Pew Poll, which showed Mitt’s margin among seniors, a demographic he had to dominate, collapsing from 19 to 9 percent.

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Romney lost because lying lost. But in the 2012 outcome we can also see an array of other losers—pundits who put ideology ahead of reality; partisan pollsters who seemed to play fast and loose with numbers; billionaires who wasted their bile and their dollars on not so–Super PACs; traffickers in race-baiting and purveyors of prejudice.

Karl Rove was more cautious than most conservative commentators, forecasting a Romney victory that just inched above 270 electoral votes. He had to make that call; Republican consultants who privately thought Mitt was going down publicly had to boost his chances. But what about Rove during Fox’s election night coverage, when he huffed and puffed that Ohio had been wrongly called for Obama. What about Michael Barone, the longtime author of the Almanac of American Politics, a liberal turned far right, who predicted Romney by 100 electoral votes? Or George Will, who awarded 321 electoral votes to the Republican? Dick Morris, dismissed from the 1996 Clinton campaign in disgrace, looked toward a Romney landslide. Jon Stewart promptly and aptly labeled Morris “the king of wrong mountain.” He will, of course, keep his place at Fox—whose motto ought to be: “All the news that fits our biases.” (Morris ultimately hedged his bet; he, like Rove, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and so many of the Romney rooters turned doubters of course blamed the storm.)

Morris is notorious for fiddling his survey data, but in 2012 that became a cottage industry on the Republican side. Firms no one ever heard of—Gravis, for example—put out results no one believed outside the precincts of the far right. There were consistently tilted numbers from “We ask America”—owned by the Illinois Manufacturers Association—and from Rasmussen, who as usual scrambled closer to accuracy on election eve. Once-respected GOP pollster Glen Bolger called Minnesota a one-point toss-up when neutral polls showed a wider spread. He was paid, presumably well-paid, by an independent conservative group. There are pollsters on both sides who won’t jimmy their numbers; in the next cycle, perhaps those who do should be left out of the poll averages—and consigned to dispensing psychic satisfaction for the fervently self-deluded.

And instead of assailing Nate Silver, whose 538 model in the Times has become an indispensable statistical standard, political analysts perhaps should focus on the statistically dubious Gallup Poll, with its cramped voter screens and its crabbed view of a less-diverse electorate. Gallup, which had Romney ahead for a long time and at the very end, is a near loser—the near equivalent of the Literary Digest survey, which predicted that Alf Landon would defeat Roosevelt in 1936. The prediction put the magazine out of business.

Greed was a loser as well—in the form of Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts, and their fellow malefactors of great wealth who poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Super PACs. They were buying, they thought, visibly low taxes and the rollback of environmental protection and safeguards against speculation. The return on investment will be the opposite of what they calculated. And Rupert Murdoch, of Fox News, front-paged his election day with a photo of an empty Oval Office and the caption: “All This Office Needs Is a Leader?” Well, it has one—and Murdoch won’t like him. But why should we let billionaires run America for themselves—and why should we listen to a news distorter like Murdoch, whose journalistic enterprises in Britain are under criminal investigation?

Finally, prejudice lost. Jim Crow lost because minority voters faced down voter suppression—the 21st century equivalent of the poll tax—to cast their ballots. In Florida, they waited out the lines and broke through the barriers. Immigrant-bashing lost—and the GOP has to reexamine the party’s game plan if not its conscience or permanently face an impossible climb back to the White House. The repression of women lost, along with Akin in Missouri and the despicable Richard Muordock in Indiana, the Tea Party choice for the Senate who blurted that pregnancy as a result of rape was intended by God. There will be no Oresident Romney to defund Planned Parenthood or appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe V. Wade.

And anti-gay bigotry lost as voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington approved marriage equality. The first lesbian was elected to the United States Senate in Wisconsin and four new members of Congress are openly gay. How far have we come from 2004, when Rove exploited this issue to boost turnout for George W. Bush. Now we have a president who openly favors the right of same sex couples to marry—and he has just been reelected. There will be no return of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”—and no brief from a right-wing Justice Department supporting the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act—a pandering piece of legislation that Bill Clinton says he never should have signed.

The Catholic Church, with its heavy involvement in the campaigns against LGBT equality and its fellow-traveling with anti-contraception extremists, lost too—and most of all, in the eyes of millions of the Church’s own numbers. The bishops ought to recall and follow John Kennedy’s call to an America where no minister—or bishop—“would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”

That ideal was a winner in 2012. Barack Obama was; Joe Biden was; Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats were. I wish Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats had prevailed too, but the odds against them were too steep.

Fairness and equality won. The 21st century won. America won.