Jacob Heilbrunn

Did William Kristol Cost Romney the Election?

Flickr: Gage SkidmoreIn the end it wasn't even close. President Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the swing states and the Democratic party retained control of the Senate. The results should be a reality check for the GOP--if it's interested in realism. With unemployment exceeding 7 percent, enthusiasm for Obama personally is tepid, but he appears to have created a new multiracial Democratic party that could provide the basis for a kind of Rooseveltian electoral coalition in future elections. He is now only the second Democratic president following World War II to win a second term. His legacy, however, already looks to be far more influential than Bill Clinton's.

Obama will be able to consolidate his health-care victory from his first term as well as the Dodd-Frank financial regulation reform. Those are two big victories for him. The GOP has also lost the chance to alter the composition of the Supreme Court--Obama may get up to three nominations in his second term. The looming fiscal cliff could also break his way. The fact that the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2012 gives him a strong hand in negotiations with the GOP. Republicans would be foolish to underestimate Obama's resolve--fresh off his election, he can campaign across the country for his version of tax and deficit reduction rather than remain stuck in Washington, a Ronald Reagan model that his surrogates are indicating he intends to follow. But another factor is that Obama, says Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus, is more seasoned and ready to compromise:

No matter how strong his base of Democratic voters, Obama needed compromise-loving independents to stick with him too.

And Obama has spent plenty of time in the last few weeks talking with Clinton, a supremely pragmatic president who regularly enraged his party's liberal base whenever he thought a lunge to the right might help him pass legislation through a Republican-held Congress.

Nevertheless, second term presidencies are usually a disaster. What might trip up Obama? Foreign affairs. He has boxed himself into something of a corner on Iran and the possiblity that he will bomb Iran should not be discounted--a move that could trigger fresh upheaval in the Middle East and send oil prices soaring. It's also the case that China's economy is faltering. So is Europe's. Fresh blows to the halting American recovery cannot be precluded.

What about the GOP? It's soul-searching time. A good case could be made that the author, in many ways, of the GOP's problems is William Kristol. Kristol saddled John McCain with Sarah Palin. He's the biggest backer of Paul Ryan, a Washington creature, who is being talked up as a potential presidential candidate in 2016--when was the last time a Congressman won the presidency? And Kristol, of course, has dominated foreign policy debate in the GOP by ceaselessly purveying neocon malarkey about American militarism abroad, but Romney's bluster about a new American century went nowhere. Had Romney shunned the neocon bluster and campaigned as a Massachusetts moderate, he would have posed a much greater threat to Obama than he did.

The temptation, of course, will be to blame Romney, and Romney alone, for the defeat. This is nonsense. Yes, Romney was always an unpromising candidate, but of the Republican primary candidates Romney was the most formidable. The campaign he waged was far superior to John McCain's in 2008. But ultimately the positions that Romney was forced to adopt undid his campaign. He never really recovered from pandering to a base that never fully accepted him. From calling himself "severely conservative" to the Todd Akin disaster, Romney was crippled by the radicalism of the GOP. Texas Senator John Cornyn observed:

It’s clear that with our losses in the Presidential race, and a number of key Senate races, we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party.  While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight.  Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead.

Ultimately, the problems afflicting the party are so obvious that they barely require enumeration, from the neocon control of the foreign-policy debate to moralistic flapdoodle about women. This should have been an election that the GOP had a strong shot at winning. Its self-destructive tendencies mean that it didn't. The bottom line is that the Karl Rove model for creating a Republican majority that he boasted about in 2004 is broken. There is no evangelical coalition that can put the GOP over the top. On the contrary, it almost singlehandedly destroyed the GOP's hopes of capturing the Senate. The GOP can reboot or it can follow the model of the Democratic party that lost three straight presidential elections before turning to Bill Clinton in 1992. What will it choose?