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FOR conservatives casting about for comfort, there are plenty of plausible reasons to dismiss talk of a crisis. Mitt Romney could have run a better campaign. He reacted slowly when Barack Obama defined him as a heartless plutocrat, and flip-flopped on policies so frequently that even campaign allies struggled to keep up. This was an election that maintained the balance of powers as they were, not a rout: if 65m American voters saw fit to hand Mr Obama a second term, fully 62m would have preferred not to sample Hope and Change, the sequel.In congressional contests voters denied Mr Obama a mandate to pursue any more of the Democratic agenda, ensuring that he will only be able to propose laws that can pass both a House of Representatives that remains firmly in Republican hands and a Senate in which they will still wield the power of death-by-filibuster. Some Republican success, it is true, was down to recent shameless efforts to gerrymander the nation’s congressional boundaries. But that does not fully account for their roughly 40-seat majority. Besides, 30 states now have Republican governors, though state borders cannot be gerrymandered.
As for a disappointing slew of Senate races, conservative bigwigs can easily blame their tea-tinged grassroots for saddling their party with extreme candidates, such as Todd Akin in Missouri or Richard Mourdock in Indiana, both undone by intemperate comments about rape. Expect scheming by the party establishment to assert more control, somehow, over primaries.
There are even ways to finesse post-election headlines about Republicans standing at the edge of a demographic precipice after Mr Romney’s drubbing at the hands of black Americans, Latinos and Asians. Lots of non-white Americans are natural conservatives, it is argued. It is just that Mr Romney–a curiously archaic, “gosh, darn it” Massachusetts millionaire–was the wrong man to woo them. In 2004 George W. Bush won 44% of Hispanics; Mr Romney got 27%. The party needs a 21st-century Reagan: a genial sort who can sell messages about self-reliance, hard work and smaller government without sounding like a scold. Many argue that they already have appealing candidates for 2016, from Mr Romney’s running-mate Paul Ryan, a deer-hunter with an iPod full of rock anthems, to the Florida senator Marco Rubio, a child of immigrants with reformist ideas about offering migrants paths into legal employment.
So much for the comforting excuses. Sadly for Republicans, their party also has long-term problems, exposed by this election with alarming clarity. One is that party footsoldiers often pay lip service to the idea of a changing America, but few seem ready actually to see their party change: the proposed, but still-born, immigration reforms of Mr Rubio are anathema to the grassroots, for example. Many seem genuinely uncomfortable with the new America. Republican gatherings are strikingly white-skinned and grey-haired. Many in attendance voice nostalgia for a time when American workers lacked global competition from places like China, when traditional American (meaning their) values were unchallenged and–to cite their most frequent complaint–the poor either worked or went hungry.
Democratic partisans have their faults: they can be tribal, inclined to believe conspiracy theories about rich elites, and to place too much faith in government intervention. But active Republicans, on average, sound angrier than other Americans. They tend to apocalyptic gloom, from the Iowa county party chairman encountered on November 5th who predicted rioting in the streets if Mr Obama were re-elected, to the numberless activists with theories about the president’s socialist leanings or America’s imminent bankruptcy. After months of campaign rallies, it was a shock to interview regular voters on election day and hear them calmly assess the merits and flaws of both parties, and their hopes for compromise in Washington.
Face the facts
Republican pessimism is more than a PR headache. Put simply, it is hard for a party to win national elections in a country that it seems to dislike. Mr Romney’s campaign slogan was “Believe in America”. But too many on his side believe in a version of America from which displeasing facts or arguments are ruthlessly excluded. Todd Akin did not implode as a Senate candidate because of his stern opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest: many Republicans in Congress share those views. His downfall came because in trying to deny that his principles involved a trade-off with compassion for rape victims he came up with the unscientific myth that the bodies of women subjected to rape can shut down a pregnancy.
It was a telling moment of denial, much like the comforting myth that there is no such thing as climate change or, if there is, that humans are not involved. Ensconced in a parallel world of conservative news sources and conservative arguments, all manner of comforting alternative visions of reality surfaced during the 2012 election. Many, like Mr Akin’s outburst, involved avoiding having to think about unwelcome things (often basic science or economics). It became a nostrum among rank-and-file Republicans that mainstream opinion polls are biased and should be ignored, for instance, and that voter fraud is rampant and explains much of the Democrats’ inner-city support. Both conspiracies sounded a lot like ways of wishing the other side away.
Thoughtful Republicans are not oblivious to the dangers that they face. Optimists hope that new leaders will emerge to lead their movement rapidly towards greater realism, and greater cheeriness. If not, electoral defeats far more severe than those inflicted this time will surely impose such changes. Republicans may look back and wish the reckoning had started sooner.
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