Before Trump, There Was Romney

I’d like to applaud Brian Beutler for the conception and flawless execution of his latest essay. Sometimes a fellow writer draws up such a clever play and then presents it with such skill that you just want to stand and clap. In this case, the subject is the effort by some intellectuals on the right to assign blame to the left for creating the Trump beast.

The launching point is an opinion piece in The Daily Beast by Karol Markowicz that accuses the liberal media (and Paul Krugman in particular) for “crying wolf” about the unique evilness of far less threatening Republican presidential contenders, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Essentially, the idea is that by exaggerating the threat of prior Republicans, liberals (i.e., the objective media) lost the credibility they needed to have their warnings respected by conservatives.

Beutler does a masterful job of revisiting the relatively recent past and explaining that the alarms that were set off about McCain and Romney (and Bush the Younger) were accurate, proportionate and prescient. I’m going to focus on just one of Beutler’s set pieces here because it’s something I wrote about, over and over and over again.

The recriminations of the GOP’s across-the-board losses in 2012 began before the winners knew they’d won. In an MSNBC appearance on election day, GOP strategist Steve Schmidt admitted that the Republicans’ quadrennial strategy of mobilizing whites had run its course and that refusing to alter it going forward would lead to the destruction of his party.

“Even if Mitt Romney is able to win this election tonight,” Schmitt said, “this will be the last election that a Republican can possibly win as a national candidate with these type of numbers [in the] Latino community with women voters and it’s really going to lead to some important moments of soul searching I think in the Republican Party if we’re to be a national party.”

…Schmidt’s concern was demographic—eventually there wouldn’t be enough white voters for Republicans to court. But the corollary of his argument was obvious: Finding more and more white voters to mobilize would ultimately require the party to make more overt appeals to white identity.

It might be forgotten now (like, as Beutler has it, stars that cannot be seen during the day due to the brightness of Trump’s sun), but Romney’s 47% makers-takers campaign message was strategically predicated on mobilizing white resentment of the welfare state and opposition to redistributive polices that were dishonestly presented as benefiting only unworthy and layabout minorities.

There were no genuine policy nods to minorities, nor anything responsive to the expressed concerns of minority communities. The election would be won by polarizing the electorate by race and by winning enough of the white vote to offset getting battered with every other grouping.

To demonstrate my point, let’s look at Dick Morris’s post-2012 election mea culpa explaining why he was anticipating a Romney landslide despite all the evidence of professional “skewed” polling professionals.

The key reason for my bum prediction is that I mistakenly believed that the 2008 surge in black, Latino, and young voter turnout would recede in 2012 to “normal” levels. Didn’t happen. These high levels of minority and young voter participation are here to stay. And, with them, a permanent reshaping of our nation’s politics.

In 2012, 13% of the vote was cast by blacks. In ’04, it was 11%. This year, 10% was Latino. In ’04 it was 8%. This time, 19% was cast by voters under 30 years of age. In ’04 it was 17%. Taken together, these results swelled the ranks of Obama’s three-tiered base by five to six points, accounting fully for his victory.

I derided the media polls for their assumption of what did, in fact happen: That blacks, Latinos, and young people would show up in the same numbers as they had in 2008. I was wrong. They did.

Some, like Hans Noel, thought that Morris was merely cheerleading when he talked about skewed polls:

…it’s not fair to Dick Morris and all the other loyal REPUBLICAN PARTISANS to expect them to make accurate predictions. That’s not their job. Their job is to motivate their team, tell them that, sure, they’re behind and there are seconds on the clock, but I believe in you, so go out there and win one for the Gipper!

But there’s plenty of evidence that Team Romney believed that Morris was correct about the polls over-counting the minority vote. John Dickerson explained in a November 2012 post-election piece in Slate:

Mitt Romney says he is a numbers guy, but in the end he got the numbers wrong. His campaign was adamant that public polls in the swing states were mistaken. They claimed the pollsters were over-estimating the number of Democrats who would turn out on Election Day. Romney’s campaign was certain that minorities would not show up for Obama in 2012 the way they did in 2008. “It just defied logic,” said a top aide of the idea that Obama could match, let alone exceed, his performance with minorities from the last election. When anyone raised the idea that public polls were showing a close race, the campaign’s pollster said the poll modeling was flawed and everyone moved on. Internally, the campaign’s own polling—tweaked to represent their view of the electorate, with fewer Democrats—showed a steady uptick for Romney since the first debate. Even on the morning of the election, Romney’s senior advisers weren’t close to hedging. They said he was going to win “decisively.” It seemed like spin, but the Boston Globe reports that a fireworks display was already ordered for the victory. Romney and Ryan thought they were going to win, say aides. “We were optimistic. More than just cautiously optimistic,” says one campaign staffer. When Romney lost, “it was like a death in the family.”

They had a strategy, and that strategy was predicated on the idea that they could get away with alienating the minority vote because doing so would maximize their share of the white vote and minorities wouldn’t turn out in a proportional response. In other words, this wasn’t just some blinkered hope, but the very way they planned and expected to win.

This was apparent at the time even before the results were known, as the Steve Schmidt quote at the top demonstrates.

Of all the “racial” groups in America, whites think the least about their race. They don’t have to think about their race because it almost never causes them any difficulties. To get them to think in racial terms takes work. A political strategy predicated on getting white voters to vote as white voters requires a campaign to find examples where whites’ race does cause them problems or disadvantages. So, you’ll hear about preferential treatment for minorities in college admissions or the assignment of contracts. You’ll hear a lot about black-on-white crime. You’ll see every example of a black or Latino person saying something anti-white parroted back to you on a loop. And, most importantly, you’ll hear about them being “takers” who suck up the wealth of “makers.”

The problem with this kind of politics, besides being morally odious, is that people of color have eyes and ears and can see and read what you say just as well as the whites the message is designed for. When you make it your goal to unnaturally raise the level of white racial identity thinking, you scare and anger everyone else.

Of course, one way of getting around that problem, or at least compensating for it, is to find ways to disproportionally disenfranchise black and brown voters so they can’t react proportionally. That’s what the voter ID laws were about, and all the other election law changes that were made to restrict early voting, voting on Sundays, same-day registration, and the rest.

But, again, when you try to take away people’s vote, they become much more determined to cast their vote. Where these restrictions weren’t struck down by the courts (and they often were and are), they were overwhelmed by a new determination in the (particularly) black community to get to the polls and support Barack Obama.

In the end, black turnout exceeded white turnout for the first time ever. So, the exact opposite of what Dick Morris and Team Romney expected to happen is what wound up happening, and the president was reelected in a romp.

I won’t say I was really “warning” the Republicans about the potential repercussions of their strategy in any way other than assuring them that it was a losing one. But I did write about how poisonous it was for the country to have a political party working diligently to exacerbate racial tensions for no higher purpose than their cynical lust for power. My case, in other words, was one part analytical (that their strategy would not work and had no future) and one part moral (that their strategy was dangerous and reprehensible).

I didn’t warn them that they might lose their party to white-ethno nationalists and white supremacists for the simple reason that they appeared to want that outcome. Romney’s strategy wasn’t the only one possible, but it was the one that was willing to get on the back of the Tea Party and ride it as far as it could go. It seemed a witting and voluntary decision to me, and therefore I concluded that they had no problem leading a party like that if the payoff was the White House.

So, now, I am told that we shouldn’t have called the Romney strategy one of white racial polarization because no one believes us when we say the same thing about Donald Trump.

How’s that stand up?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.