It’s a fate-taunting proposition, the day before a close election, to be looking ahead to the possible reactions to one particular outcome. But as Hurricane Sandy has taught us, it’s always a good idea to be prepared for contingencies. Herewith, then, is an attempt to reckon with the reaction that could occur on the right end of the spectrum if Barack Obama is reelected, as many prognosticators, not just the skinny ones with fancy models, are now predicting. It does not seem to be going too far to imagine that an Obama win would bring a very strong outburst on the right. After all, not only is there deep contempt for Obama in conservative circles—on display from the floor of the House (“You lie!”) to the Twitter feeds of leading businessmen (Trump, Murdoch, Jack Welch, etc)—but there has of late been real confidence, bordering on assurance, that he would fall on Tuesday.
This was not the case for much of the summer, but Mitt Romney’s victory in the first debate, and the polling surge that followed, inflamed hopes that we were, indeed, about to witness 1980 redux: the Jimmy Carterization of the hapless Obama. These hopes have been kept alive even after Romney’s polling surge abated and Obama’s narrow edge in key states held firm, by a mainstream media eager to stoke the narrative of a photo finish and by partisans and partial commentators doing their best to present a bullish front (see, for instance, Jay Cost’s dismissal of Obama-leaning polls and Michael Barone’s prediction that Romney will win 315 Electoral College votes.)
This means that a Romney loss could result in a harder landing for many Obama-loathers than would’ve seemed likely just a month or two ago. The long-term consequences are a matter for deeper consideration—how Republicans in Congress would deal with a lame-duck Obama over the next few years, how the party as a whole would respond to a second straight presidential election loss. For now, though, we can imagine some of the forms that an immediate reaction against an Obama victory would take, from outright denial to more subtle forms of delegitimation:
1. The election was stolen. This is, of course, the old tried-and-true stand-by: that Democrats win elections “Chicago-style.” It is a story line that has helped give rise to the new Voter ID laws and other voting restrictions around the country, as Jane Mayer described well in her recent New Yorker profile of Hans von Spakovsky, one of the leading town criers against voter fraud. On the one hand, it would seem like this would be a less effective line to take in 2012 than in past years. After all, states have passed 23 laws imposing new restrictions on voting in the past two years, and key swing states such as Ohio and Florida are being led by Republicans who have done their best to impose limitations on voter access; ACORN, the favorite target of voter-fraud accusations, is no longer in business; and the only notable allegations of organized voter fraud to surface this election have involved Republicans. But that won’t keep the Chicago legend from gaining circulation again this time around. Von Spakovsky, who is now on the elections board in Virginia’s largest county, Fairfax, was on Fox News the other day warning that Romney voters in some places were being counted as Obama voters.
Meanwhile, there is a more genteel, but still noxious, version of this argument starting to make the rounds: that an Obama victory this year would be less than fully legitimate given that he would be relying, even more than in 2008, on the support of racial minorities. There was even a hint of this in Politico’s broad election wrap-up piece on Sunday: “If President Barack Obama wins, he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites. That’s what the polling has consistently shown in the final days of the campaign. It looks more likely than not that he will lose independents, and it’s possible he will get a lower percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters in 2000. A broad mandate this is not.”
2. The Benghazi cover-up. If there hasn’t been more talk of stolen elections so far this year, it’s partly because the right has been so consumed with the conviction that Obama callously left four Americans to die on September 11 in Benghazi—and that the press is helping cover it all up just long enough to secure his election. I’ve already made clear what I think of this—that, far from covering up what happened that horrible night in Libya, the press has been successfully coaxed into giving it far more scrutiny than the deaths of four Americans would’ve received at many other times and in many other contexts. And I made that argument before the latest burst of additional scrutiny from the likes of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
Yet still the notion persists that this has been the greatest government cover-up since...well, Watergate, according to John McCain, who argued that it was in fact worse than that, since “nobody died in Watergate.” Then there was Rudy Giuliani declaring at Romney’s rally in Ohio Friday night that it was Obama’s “incompetence” that had led to the four men’s deaths and that Obama should resign. Meanwhile, Fox News has been so fixated on Benghazi that it barely paused to cover the devastation of Sandy until it finally realized, starting this weekend, that the devastation could be easily cast as an Obama administration failure. But that distraction aside, Benghazi will live on as the rallying cry for the most hardcore of the Obama de-legitimizers.
3. The Sandy fluke and Christie betrayal. This is emerging as the favored way to explain away an Obama reelection among the Republican elite. Put simply, Obama was saved by the weather, which, distracted the country from the campaign and thereby halted Romney’s momentum. Karl Rove, just a couple days after predicting a Romney victory with 277 Electoral College votes, declared that the storm had helped Obama:
“If you hadn’t had the storm, there would have been more of a chance for the [Mitt] Romney campaign to talk about the deficit, the debt, the economy. There was a stutter in the campaign. When you have attention drawn away to somewhere else, to something else, it is not to his [Romney's] advantage,” Rove told The Washington Post.
Rove, who served as George W. Bush’s deputy White House chief of staff, said that in the wake of the storm, there are “advantages and a minor disadvantage” for the president as well as a “subtle disadvantage to Romney.” “Obama has temporarily been a bipartisan figure this week. He has been the comforter-in-chief and that helps,” Rove said.
Mississippi Governor and longtime GOP honcho Haley Barbour concurred Sunday, saying the storm “broke Romney's momentum.” Conservative pundit Fred Barnes went the furthest, tweeting that Obama had been let off the hook by the media for failing to see through his storm response, and instead returning to the campaign trail: “Here’s media bias: if Obama were a Republican, he’d be facing press attacks for campaigning while people in NY and NJ are cold and suffering.”
There are a few problems with all this. There is the fact that some conservatives are dismissing the storm as really not having been all that big a deal—Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins Jr.scoffed in his Saturday column that Sandy had merely caused “weather-related mishaps” in New York. Then there is the fact that blaming the storm for giving Obama an opportunity to show leadership is rather at odds with the longstanding conservative critique that he is no sort of leader. As one liberal blogger, Simon Maloy, tweeted on Sunday: “So the GOP argument is that the incompetent, feckless president with no leadership skills benefited immensely from a crisis? Seems legit.” But above all, there is the fact that Romney’s momentum had clearly stalled out well before the storm hit—Obama, for one thing, was maintaining an edge in the Ohio polls in the week before Sandy.
There is an intriguing complement to the Sandy rationale: the betrayal of Republicans by Chris Christie, who was altogether too cuddly with Obama in the days after the storm. Christie’s desertion of his party into the scrawny arms of the president may well become the Dolchstosslegende of 2012—the betrayal without which victory would've been assured. Among those wielding the charge is none other than Rupert Murdoch, who was leading the pack urging Christie to run for president but who tweetedover the weekend that Christie “while thanking O, must re- declare for Romney, or take blame for next four dire years.”
4. Obama won dirty. This is another line emerging among the conservative elite. They may grant Obama’s victory, but it was a victory achieved with such low tactics (the Bain Capital ads) and narrow and rudimentary a message (pandering to young single women with free birth control) that it leaves him with effectively zero authority to govern the country. For a typical example of this line, see former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson:
In a remarkable New York magazine article by John Heilemann this May, senior Obama aides frankly described the task ahead — delegitimizing Romney. He would be attacked as a vulture capitalist, a cultural revanchist, a social Darwinist. “For anyone still starry-eyed about Obama,” said Heilemann, “the months ahead will provide a bracing revelation about what he truly is: not a savior, not a saint, not a man above the fray, but a brass-knuckled, pipe-hitting, red-in-tooth-and-claw brawler.”
“Bracing” does not fully capture it. Throughout the summer, the Obama campaign and its allies accused Romney of not paying taxes, of possibly committing a felony, of personally outsourcing jobs to China and India, of stashing money in the Cayman Islands, of bearing responsibility for a woman’s death from cancer. The attempt to discredit Romney had an added political benefit. A presidential campaign consumed by the jabs and parries of the 24-hour news cycle was less focused on larger matters such as the economy.
An Obama win—with an assist by Ohio—would vindicate the president’s campaign game plan. But ... Obama will have left the nation divided, disillusioned and less governable.
Or Peggy Noonan:
Look at where he started, placing his hand on the Bible Abe Lincoln was sworn in on in 1861. It was Jan. 20, 2009. The new president was 47 and in the kind of position politicians can only dream of—a historic figure walking in, the first African-American president, broadly backed by the American people. He won by 9.5 million votes. Two days after his inauguration, Gallup had him at 68% approval, only 12% disapproval. He had a Democratic Senate, and for a time a filibuster-proof 60 members. He had a Democratic House (256-178) with a colorful, energetic speaker. The mainstream media were excited about him, supportive of him.
His political foes were demoralized, their party fractured. He faced big problems—an economic crash, two wars—but those crises gave him broad latitude. All of his stars were perfectly aligned. He could do anything. And then it all changed. At a certain point he lost the room.
5. His opponent was a joke. For most of the summer, this was looking to be the right’s likely rationalization of an Obama victory: he had the good fortune to run against a historically lousy candidate, a stiff chameleon with no common touch and a habit of saying dreadfully gauche and clueless things. (I will never forget watching Joe Scarborough’s reaction to Romney’s “47 percent” comments, while in a hotel room in Dayton, Ohio—shaking his head as if to say, can we just call this election now?). But then something funny happened: Romney did very well in the first debate, making Obama look listless and defeated by comparison, and the right went into a swoon for its man. Never mind that he had done well at the debate partly by abandoning the conservative positions they had been urging him to speak for all summer, and that they thought his selection of Paul Ryan would amplify. No, all that mattered was that he was moving up in the polls and might in fact have a shot at winning. The cone of silence around his desertion of the conservative platform has been truly something to behold. What will be very, very interesting to see is whether a Romney loss would be followed by a resurgence of critiques of the candidate himself. One would imagine it will. But it will be severely compromised by this past month’s conspicuous concession to expediency.
A final thought: it should be said that there will be other, better-grounded rationalizations of a Romney loss. For one thing, we can be sure to see calls for the party to break out of its racial homogenity, should Romney lose despite winning (as is predicted) about 60 percent of the white vote. But at least at first, these self-critical murmurs will almost surely be drowned out by louder and more visceral protests against reality.
That is, assuming Obama wins. Nate Silver still gives Romney a 15 percent chance to pull it out. And who knows, Michael Barone may know something we don’t.
*Note: it goes without saying that all of the above scenarios would be greatly exacerbated if Obama wins reelection while losing the popular vote. I’ve been among those warning of this possibility, especially if Sandy keeps many in blue states from voting. But again, that’s a whole other can of legitimacy-questioning worms.
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