By JONATHAN GURWITZ
New York Times News Service
If a Republican presidential candidate can’t win an election against an opponent saddled with the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression, a record stretch of unemployment at or above 8 percent, a record $6 trillion in deficit spending and a deeply unpopular health care plan, then what will it take for a GOP candidate to win the White House?
If Republicans couldn’t win a handful of seats to take over a Senate that hasn’t passed a budget in three years and whose majority leader wouldn’t even consider a budget resolution this year, then under what circumstances can they do so?
To begin to answer these questions, go back to 2008. After Democrats expanded their majorities in the House and Senate and Barack Obama soundly defeated John McCain, Republicans faced a reckoning. For the better part of eight years, the supposed party of fiscal responsibility ran up deficits just like Democrats. The party of limited government presided over a gluttonous expansion of government growth.
Then the tea party performed an intervention. No longer would it be permissible for Republicans to talk like conservatives on the campaign trail only to act like spendthrift liberals in Washington. The grassroots movement demanded accountability on spending, taxes and the size and scope of government. Properly chastened, Republicans in 2010 made historic gains in Congress and in state houses across the nation.
This year’s desultory GOP results should prompt the same type of chastening. But if prodigal spending, the aggrandizement of K Street power and the abandonment of conservative principles were the transgressions in 2008, what are the offenses that explain this year’s Republican failures?
Much of the blame will be directed at Mitt Romney, who was — to be sure — an imperfect candidate who ran an imperfect campaign. It would be easy to make him the scapegoat of 2012. But consider his even more imperfect opponents in the GOP primaries.
Donald Trump with his birther conspiracies. Michele Bachmann with her Muslim conspiracies. Rick Santorum and his nausea about the separation of church and state. Newt Gingrich’s irreverence for the separation of powers. Herman Cain and the four women. Rick Perry and the three … no, make that two government agencies he’d abolish.
Their antics created a fog of buffoonery and extremism from which Romney could not escape. Others turned this fog into a toxic cloud.
Todd Akin mused about the ability of the female body to block unwanted pregnancies in cases of “legitimate” rape. Richard Mourdock inferred God’s intention in such cases. Rush Limbaugh gave an assist by calling a liberal advocate a slut. And Romney himself contributed the noxious notion of “self-deportation.”
This election should have been a referendum on Obama’s record. Such blunders allowed Democrats to make it about an alleged Republican war on women, minorities and reason.
The strategy worked. Obama won among women by 10 percentage points, among Hispanics by 40 points, among Asians by 50 points and among blacks by more than 80 points. If those margins persist, demography will reduce the Republican Party to regional influence and national irrelevance in the not too distant future.
If Republicans want to remain relevant, if they want to cut into those margins — it was only eight years ago that George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote — they’re going to have to banish the buffoons as effectively as they did the big spenders in 2010. That doesn’t mean that Republicans can’t talk about the sanctity of life or secure borders. But it does mean they’re going to have to find ways to do so that don’t offend common sense and human dignity.