One of the toughest parts of being a political consultant is seeing the obvious.
Presidential elections aren’t won or lost on small things. They are won on big things. Republicans had the wind in their faces from the get-go this year. Incumbent Presidents almost always win, and when they don’t, they have primary challengers and a divided base. Obama had none of that, but he did have a horrible job performance and a rotten economy under his policies.
He still won.
It is remarkably tough to get Americans to admit they made a mistake in the first election. It almost never happens. When it does, the base jumps ship first.
But Republicans have got to stop running on unpopular things!
Remember Ross Perot? He was the Tea Party of the 90s.
He campaigned on eliminating our national debt and cutting spending. Cut Cut Cut Cut Cut.
He got 19% of the vote, zero states, got 8% of the vote four years later and is a footnote now.
Pundits are convinced the Republican Party needs to grow demographically. Might be true, but that’s not the problem. That’s the symptom of the problem.
The problem is that our hyper-focus on debt, deficits and budgets make us pretty unpopular choices for a large swath of Americans.
Let’s wander through the list of candidates who campaigned against deficits and debt. Walter Mondale. Mike Dukakis. Ross Perot. John Kerry. John McCain. Mitt Romney.
Clinton’s balanced budgets came after his two winning elections, and not before, and he campaigned against balanced budgets every step of the way, winning both times. George W. Bush racked up the debt on his way to two winning elections, and Obama doubled down and got his eight years.
Did Ronald Reagan spend all his time worrying about budget deficits as he won 49 states in 1984?
Say what you want about the “47 percent” remark in this campaign, but if your major campaign platform message is to cut all government spending, you’re giving 47% of the vote away at the starting line.
Ask people if the budget should be balanced, they say yes. Ask them if to do so we should cut programs their parents rely on, and people aren’t rushing to the polls to do so.
That’s just reality. People see their parents needing Social Security and Medicare and politicians running on cutting them aren’t scoring at the ballot box.
We’re in a rotten economy, with more people relying on government than in recent history. And we’re telling people now is the time to cut government? And we expect them to like us for it?
Ronald Reagan had it right, and I still can’t believe we need to go back 30 years to learn the same lessons. Deficits matter, but as campaign issues, the debt and deficit has never won a campaign. Never. Democrats ran against the national debt for decades and complained as Reagan/Bush rolled over them in election after election.
We have to stop being the Ross Perot of politics and think it is our duty to deliver the bad news to the voters, expecting them to thank us for it.
You can’t win popular votes promoting unpopular things, and the Tea Party fixation on the national debt is, and always has been, a losing strategy in electoral politics.