November 7, 2012 7:12 pm

Obama shattered the GOP’s delusions

Republicans have been evicted from their state of denial, writes Simon Schama
Ingram Pinn©Ingram Pinn

For a while in the small hours, even after the arithmetic of the electoral college had already doomed his campaign, it seemed Mitt Romney would not concede defeat. Karl Rove, whose perpetual air of self-satisfaction must for once have been tinged with chagrin, was muttering on air that Ohio would have to be recounted; that his home network of Fox had thrown in the towel prematurely. Hopes of a repeat of Bush-Gore were evidently still glimmering. But this was the last gasp emitted from the echo chamber of delusions within which the Republican elite have sealed themselves for years.

Then Mr Romney came on stage in Boston to make his concession speech. It was gracious but less moving than John McCain’s speech four years ago, a concession so generous and imbued with a sense of the historical moment that it alarmed even his own Republican troops. But in his way, too, Mitt Romney for a moment dropped the mask. Behind it was a chastened man, for once slightly unkempt, the weariness visible. But not much else. Graceful good wishes to the victor, a prayer for the president and the country and then true Romney, a homily that teachers, investors, citizens of strong faith might lead us out of dire straits. And that was it.

Suddenly the man who had tried to be everything to everyone was nothing to anyone, except a tired private equity executive and former governor of a state that had just repudiated him by a huge margin. In the last weeks of the campaign his strategists had imagined they might expand the “battleground map” into the industrial Midwest, concocting a fable – that Barack Obama had sent the auto industry into bankruptcy and was even now outsourcing jobs to China – so at odds with the truth that even Motown executives were compelled to denounce it. Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland were not buying it, and so long before Pennsylvania was known to have turned the tide Mr Obama’s way, the Republicans had lost the presidency in the industrial heartland.

What bit the dust on Tuesday was the world of denial in which Republicans have immured themselves ever since the rise of the Tea Party in 2009. This is a universe in which the financial crash was caused by over-regulation; one in which, despite years of brutal drought and violent weather patterns, climate change is a liberal hoax; a country that can correct a vast structural deficit without ever raising additional revenue, while expanding the military budget beyond anything sought by the Pentagon; a belief system in which Mr Obama was the source of all economic ills rather than the steward of the most intractable crisis since the Depression. The mantra was that a business executive would, simply by virtue of that fact, effect a magical rejuvenation of the staggering American economy.

But the most obstinate fantasy to die in this election was that the greatness of the US was somehow inseparably bound to the dominion of the white male. The most egregiously offensive candidates for the Senate, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who proclaimed that post-rape conceptions must be part of God’s plan, and Todd Akin in Missouri, who spoke of “legitimate rape”, threw away Senate seats that were the GOP’s for the taking. Another illusion was that huge sums poured through Super-PACs would tip the balance in competitive races. Linda McMahon, the professional wrestling tycoon, spent $100m in two elections attempting to become senator for Connecticut and still headlocked herself into disaster.

Built into these assumptions was the conviction that non-white, non-male voters, especially Latinos, could not be mobilised, especially not with the same intensity or numbers they had shown in 2008. The long lines of people waiting hours to vote in Florida and many other places ended that narrow-minded complacency.

Of course the Republican party does not altogether turn its back on this new America. But the harshness of its policy on immigration is a slow-drip suicide for the Republicans, reducing them to becoming the party of the confederacy and the mountain states of guns and God.

The mere fact of Mr Obama’s re-election ought, if the Republicans have an eye for their long-term preservation, give them pause before venturing on the usual manic conspiracy theories or denouncing their nominee for being insufficiently conservative. But you might also hope they listened to his victory speech, which was, for a candidate who has at times been startlingly disengaged from the persuading element of the presidency, one of the great moments in his political career. For after generously thanking two generations of Romneys for public service, Mr Obama went on to defend democracy itself on one of its climactic days: not in the airy philosophical terms to which he often resorts, but by painting a picture of ordinary people ennobled by the democratic process. In vivid words he painted a picture of countless people knocking on doors, queueing to vote notwithstanding all the obstacles placed in their way by institutions or Mother Nature; living their American identity through these acts of engagement. Politics, the president said, can sometimes seem small or “silly” (amen to that) before insisting that in the majesty of the multitudes it was as big as anything can get. Then he sounded a theme that has been too often muted in his first term: that the US is a republic in which mutual obligations matter as much as the assertion of rights. And where did America’s true exceptionalism lie? In its unique diversity, which his own person embodies and which might at last be seen as the sign not of its enervation but of its rejuvenated redemption.

The writer is an FT contributing editor

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