Last night, at 11:18 PM Eastern time, FOX News called Ohio — and thus the presidency — for Barack Obama. The announcement followed closely on the heels of ones by NBC, MSNBC, and CBS, and appeared almost simultaneously with a similar declaration from CNN.
But before Mitt Romney would deliver his brief but gracious concession speech, and before the confetti would rain down in Chicago on a thrilling night for the Democratic Party, a minidrama was taking place on FOX News. Karl Rove, the mastermind of George W. Bush’s campaign strategies and the chief fundraiser of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS (an organization that spent approximately $300 million this election cycle in an almost entirely unsuccessful series of advertising campaigns), insisted that the network had called Ohio too early.
“I don’t know what the outcome is going to be, but we’ve got to be careful about calling things when we have, like, 991 votes separating the two candidates and a quarter of the vote yet to count,” Rove said. “Even if they have made it on the basis of select precincts, I’d be very cautious about intruding into this process.”
Rove, of course, had a big dog in the fight: the near-total failure of his organizations’ efforts over the course of these past two years (echoing the dismal record of fellow Republican tycoon Sheldon Adelson) threatens his credibility as a savvy strategist and, thus, his ability to raise money in the future.
Even so, Rove’s impassioned opposition to the statistically-based consensus was startling in its self-certainty. It was as if, by the mere act of delaying the final announcement for just minutes or seconds more, Rove thought it possible to stave off — or even alter — reality itself. But at long last, the empirical world would wait no longer, and his fever dream finally met its bitter end.
It is precisely because Rove’s delusions echo the larger fantasies of the Republican Party that his earnest entreaties should rattle the moderate voices within a GOP struggling to make sense of its post-election blues. Indeed, his blunt refusal to accept the rapidly descending reality was not an exception, but the norm. Dick Morris predicted a landslide for Romney. George Will similarly forecasted a 321-217 electoral vote triumph. Michael Barone envisioned a nearly identical result of 315-223.
Meanwhile, the New York Times‘ Nate Silver — who first rose to stardom in 2008, when he correctly predicted the electoral outcomes in 49 of 50 states — had been steadfastly forecasting an Obama victory for months. As his stated probability crept steadily closer to 90% and then beyond, Silver’s detractors on the right multiplied. Examiner.com’s Dean Chambers infamously wrote, “Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice…” And MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough lambasted Silver as well, proclaiming, “Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes.”
Unlike the analysis conducted by many of his conservative counterparts — to the extent that he has peers at all — Nate Silver’s predictions were grounded firmly in empirical data. He meticulously averaged, weighted, and adjusted polls based on data recency, the historical accuracy of the various polling firms, “house effects,” and so on. While not every aspect of his evaluations was made entirely transparent — every whizkid needs his secret sauce, after all — he explained the bulk of his seemingly alchemical methodology in column after column.
It is useful, then, to transpose the lessons of this Triumph of the Nerds onto the broader political struggle that just culminated in Barack Obama’s reelection last night. Just as Silver’s coolheaded, reason-based analysis prevailed over the flamboyant provocations of right-wing pundits in the months leading up to the election, it was the centrist and well-balanced vision for America that won over the majority of citizens in the voting booths yesterday.
Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are both deeply flawed (and often infuriating) entities, for a variety of reasons that could fill entire volumes of books. But their lack of conviction and courage was dwarfed by the monumental denialism of Mitt Romney and the Republican Party, whose deeply entrenched rage at the president was predicated on an increasingly tenuous grasp of reality.
No, there was no apology tour. Obama is neither a socialist, nor Muslim, nor Kenyan. Romney’s tax plan is not mathematically possible. Chrysler did not sell Jeeps in China at the expense of American jobs. Obama is not “ending Medicare as we know it.” We are not, in fact, in danger of losing our status as a free economy.
The list could continue ad nauseum. But it is not simply the misstatement of fiction as fact that characterizes the Mitt Romney-era Republican Party; after all, one could easily compile an impressive list of whoppers told by Obama and his political supporters as well. What Mitt Romney failed to understand was that a platform of extremism — ranging from the “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants to his support of a constitutional ban on gay marriage to his pledge to reject even a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes — is not in line with the views of the American public.
On this issue, the fault lines within the Republican Party are already starting to widen. It is likely that a civil war of sorts is looming within the party, with the moderate wing led by Jeb Bush and Chris Christie facing off against the Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann types for the ideological future of their party.
Today, Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard has written, “No doubt the media will insist that Republicans must change, must sprint to the center, must embrace social liberalism, must accept that America is destined to play a less dominant role in the world. All that is hogwash, which is why Republicans are likely to reject it. Their ideology is not a problem.”
It is this brand of thinking that the Republican Party must bury if it wishes to emerge from the throes of an eminently avoidable defeat. As Joel Benenson wrote in today’s New York Times, “The president’s victory was a triumph of vision, not of demographics. He won because he articulated a set of values that define an America that the majority of us wish to live in: A nation that makes the investments we need to strengthen and grow the middle class. A nation with a fair tax system, and affordable and excellent education for all its citizens. A nation that believes that we’re most prosperous when we recognize that we are all in it together.”
Mitt Romney was never able to peer beyond the narrow passions of an inflamed base for long enough to understand that the country, as always, is changing. Gone are the days of sole reliance on older white voters. Similarly, a slow national metamorphosis has eliminated the Republican Party’s once-solid, but now anachronistic and non-existent, competitive advantage on social issues. Even on foreign policy, the baton has largely been ceded to a president once derided as naive and unprepared.
The Republican Party of 2012 must see its decisive defeat as an opportunity. Making inroads with Latinos and African-Americans should be a priority. Abandoning its puritanical image — including some truly appalling perspectives on rape — is just as important, especially as the younger generation comes of age in a country of broad diversity in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and many other facets of life. (As Matthew Dowd so eloquently put it, Republicans have become a “‘Mad Men’ party in a ‘Modern Family’ America.”) Reasserting the GOP’s hegemony on economic and fiscal responsibility will take much work after its free-spending Bush years and its ideological rigidity during the Obama era, but it is not impossible.
Already, there are signs of a Republican thaw. House Speaker John Boehner, appearing today at the Capitol, signaled an openness to raising revenues in exchange for reform of entitlements and the tax code. “Mr. President, this is your moment,” he said. “We’re ready to lead, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans.” This is a far cry from Mitch McConnell’s notorious statement in an October 2010 interview: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Now that the GOP has failed at this singular task, perhaps it can take a further step away from the precipice by cleansing its ranks of the vitriol and stubbornness that so characterized its behavior in President Obama’s first term. Today, Jon Huntsman’s strategist, John Weaver, seemed to grasp the significance of this necessary transformation: “We have a choice: we can become a shrinking regional party of middle-aged and older white men, or we can fight to become a national governing party. And to do the latter we have to fix our Hispanic problem as quickly as possible, we’ve got to accept science and start calling out these false equivalencies when they occur within our party about things that are just not true, and not tolerate the intolerant.”
Such a reformation will require the elimination of the type of epistemic closure suffered by Karl Rove on Election Night. It will require a reorientation away from 1950s-style conservatism and towards a more modern variant that embraces our nation’s diversity and encourages the expansion of marriage to include same-sex couples. And it will require the implementation of a form of self-policing to prevent the party of conservatism from devolving into an aspiring theocracy.
In this sense, Barack Obama’s reelection has done the GOP a favor. It has acted as a natural corrective of a national party gone astray, and it establishes in precise numerical terms the unease with which Americans viewed an increasingly unhinged Republican Party. It serves as a reminder that, while we will tolerate all sorts of folly in the name of entertainment and politics, we draw the line at ideological insanity. For the sake of all American citizens, one can only hope the Republican reincarnation will begin in earnest today.