Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles examining what went wrong for the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential election and where the GOP goes from here. Please visit our special section GOP: What Next? to follow the series of stories and find related content.
The Republican Party and its conservative allies were hit with a crunching sucker punch on Nov. 6 when, along with demoralizing defeats in both the Senate and the House, President Barack Obama decisively defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Sure, a few races were easy to call well before Nov. 6 (we’re looking at you, Todd Akin), but many on the right were genuinely shocked with the results of Election Day (we’re definitely looking at you, Karl Rove and Dick Morris).
Many — including the Republican presidential candidate — thought the election would be closer. But it wasn’t. With 332 electoral votes, President Obama won handily.
After all the money, all the outpouring of conservative grassroots support, all the super PAC ads — what happened?
Some conservatives blame “changing demographics,” others fault the Republican Party’s emphasis on social issues. And although there’s something to be said for both of these arguments, another factor may have played a role in President Obama’s seemingly easy re-election.
Let’s call it the “Trump and Arpaio Problem.”
Business mogul Donald Trump and Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio — along with lesser-known personalities – repeatedly shifted the focus of the 2012 election away from Barack Obama’s record as president and back to tired, old rumors regarding his personal history.
Titillating theories regarding the president’s place of birth, his college transcripts, and his former associates were as unsuccessful in 2004 (when he ran for the U.S. Senate) as they were in 2008 (when Hillary Clinton and her supporters tried their hand at the whole “birther” thing).
So why did Arpaio and Trump think 2012 would be any different? What were they trying to accomplish?
Barack Obama has been president for four years. Not only does he have numerous failed financial investments under his belt (a topic Trump could have spoken on at great length), but also the “Fast and Furious” gun-running scandal (something Joe Arpaio could have offered some enlightening insight on).
Instead of hijacking news cycles to talk about things like the president’s many failed taxpayer-backed “green” energy initiatives, Donald Trump issued mock-worthy, multimillion-dollar offers to see the president’s college grades. Instead of asking hard-hitting questions regarding the White House’s immigration policy (like Univision did), Arpaio called a press conference to let everyone know that his “posse” had cracked the code (or something).
Between Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s “Cold Case Posse” and Donald Trump’s obsession with the president’s college transcripts, things like Solyndra, the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), and four straight years of $1 trillion-plus annual budget deficits fell by the wayside.
This presented Romney with a problem.
It was left to the Romney campaign and its surrogates to build the case against Obama’s record as president, making the GOP candidate seem like he was always on the attack instead of letting his proxies play “bad cop.”
“Governor Romney has said repeatedly that he believes President Obama was born in the United States,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in May. “The Democrats can talk about Donald Trump all they want — Mitt Romney is going to talk about jobs and how we can get our economy moving again.”
The fact that Saul had to issue this statement illustrates perfectly the “Trump and Arpaio Problem.”
Now we’re not saying people shouldn’t investigate the president’s past. On the contrary, vetting is a necessary part of the election process. People like Dinesh D’Souza and Mark Steyn do an excellent job of analyzing the president in his own words. But it’s pretty clear Trump and Arpaio weren’t interested in investigating the president’s character. They were more interested in trotting out discarded and debunked smears from Obama’s political youth.
Did Team Obama and the left-wing media play small and personal? Did they ignore Romney’s political record? You bet they did. But here’s the thing: They did a better job of focusing on issues of character that were a) a matter of historical record (Romney did put a dog on his car) and b) effective in changing the public’s opinion of the GOP candidate.
For President Obama’s supporters to avoid Romney’s public record in favor of character attacks makes political sense. For Romney’s proxies to avoid the president’s White House record in favor of debunked rumors makes less sense.
Team Obama and the left-wing media were focused. Everything they said and did was to one end: To make Romney look like a terrible, horrible candidate. Conservatives, on the other hand, were torn. One camp wanted to campaign against President Obama while the other wanted to talk about Obama of yesteryear.
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