Perhaps the most interesting, and shocking, statistic from Tuesday's election was the fact that Mitt Romney did not pull as many Republican votes as did John McCain. If he had, it is likely he would have defeated Barack Obama. This is both bad and good news for Republicans. The bad news is that Republicans lost what was apparently a very winnable election. They fumbled the ball on the most consequential elections of our lifetimes.
The good news is that the election may not have been the decisive affirmation of the social welfare state that some of us (me) initially supposed. I assumed that Republican turnout would be heavy, so the only way Obama could win is if the generalized vote had moved in his favor. The possibility that Obama's vote total would be way down from 2008, yet he would nonetheless squeak through because Republicans weren't interested enough to vote against him, wasn't something I ever considered. But the depressed vote totals for both Obama and his Republican opponent seem to indicate that voters, while not enamored of Obama, never came to really believe that Romney was an acceptable alternative. This combined with Republican retention of the House (including reelection of Tea Party members), would seem to point to the fact that Romney never overcame his deficiencies as a candidate.
What are those deficiencies? I think it is helpful to compare him to John McCain. I don't have any numbers or poll results, so this is largely based on my own impressions, but here goes. McCain was not a great candidate, but virtually no Republican would have been able to win in 2008, given the fatigue with Bush and the financial crisis that occurred shortly before the election. Yet McCain outpolled Romney despite the fact that Romney faced an Obama after four years of unpopular policies like Obamacare and the stimulus, and McCain faced the still mythologized Hope and Change Obama. The only conclusion can be that McCain was a much more personally attractive candidate than was Romney. And the obvious personal difference between the two men is McCain's history as a Vietnam War hero and Romney's as a business/finance wizard.
I do not like to listen to political speeches and generally find them to be fingernails-on-the-chalkboard unpleasant, but McCain's acceptance of the 2008 Republican nomination was perhaps the most inspiring political speech I've ever heard. He recounted his experience as a prisoner of war, thinking he was tough enough to take whatever the Communists dealt out, and later slunk back to his cell in humiliation after being broken under torture. Asking the rhetorical question of whether he was bitter about his experience, McCain said that he was not bitter but grateful: "After I was broken under torture, my country saved me. My country saved me." Thinking about it still gives me chills and I was never more proud to be an American, a veteran of the Marine Corps, and a Republican.
The virtues are attractive, Aristotle tells us, and John McCain, while far from a perfect man and even farther from a perfect conservative, had virtues people find attractive in a time of crisis: The virtues of duty, sacrifice and service. People understand that sacrifice is necessary in a crisis, and they look for someone they can trust who can reassure them that their sacrifices are neither in vain nor a subtle form of exploitation. McCain was such a man, which is why he did as well as he did despite the favorable political winds for Obama.
Mitt Romney is by all accounts a good and decent man, responsible with respect to his family and personally generous with his money to charity, but he is not anything like an exemplar of the public virtues of duty and service that is John McCain (who could be?) He was never in the military nor do any of his five sons ever seem to have expressed an interest in military service. This is not the only way to express public virtue but it is the traditional one expected of social elites (e.g. HRH Prince Andrew flying in the Falklands War). Conservatives, as the "daddy party" of not only responsibility, self-restraint and self-reliance, but also of duty and sacrifice, must have candidates who can sell those virtues by displaying them. Romney was not that man.
It has been said that this election proves that Republicans have lost the culture. I was sympathetic to this view in the immediate aftermath of the election, but now I am not so sure. Much of the culture has no doubt been lost, but the counter-counter-culture did not really have a spokesman in this election, someone who could sell the sacrifice that is necessary to save the nation from imminent catastrophe. In the absence of such a leader, voters defaulted to the candidate who has promised that sacrifice isn't really necessary (except by "the rich", for whom it isn't really a sacrifice because they've got so much).
But the fact is that broad and deep sacrifice will be required by everyone if a catastrophe is to be avoided. The President is not prepared to demand these sacrifices, nor could he sell them anymore than could Mitt Romney if he tried, not to mention that his reelection was based on his insistence that sacrifice was not really necessary. This means a catastrophe is probably inevitable. Right now Republicans are insisting that no taxes by raised, not even on the wealthy, which will allow the Democrats to blame Republican intransigence when disaster happens - Republicans allowed the country to collapse merely for the sake of saving their rich friends a few dollars. The fact is the tax increases the President is talking about will barely move the needle on the debt and will kill jobs, but much bigger things are at stake. The entire social democratic project is at stake in the President's insistence that he just needs a little more time to make things right. If granted his pathetic tax increase, it will become undeniably obvious that the President must either come on board with substantial cuts in social welfare spending - cuts far beyond the measly cuts Paul Ryan proposed last year and for which he was denounced as a dangerous extremist - or a catastrophe will ensue. The President himself will find it necessary to tell us that what he sold in his reelection campaign was way out of touch with reality. Or he will lead us over the cliff and there will be no denying who was behind the wheel. Reality is about to vote on the social democratic program.
Republicans must be prepared to offer an alternative that involves more than the standard appeals to lower taxes, spending and regulation, but appeals to an alternative understanding of community and civic virtue, an understanding that hearkens back to Jack Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you..." For this conservative leaders must have the personal moral capital to sell the conservative vision of duty, self-restraint, and sacrifice for the the greater good which, in the end, is the only vision that can work because it is in accord with the natural truth. This doesn't mean conservative politicians must have a story like John McCain's, but it does mean that Newt Gingrich-type politicians (no military service or other visible signs of genuine sacrifice, plus multiple wives) should be unacceptable. Nor should the premier conservative voice in the national conversation be a 61 year old man with no children who trades in his trophy wife for a newer model every few years.
If conservatives cannot convincingly sell the virtuous life that is necessary to a free, republican people, then even in the event of the catastrophic failure of the social welfare state, the consequence will be a further descent into tyranny rather than a return to limited government.