Narrative of a Defeat: Why the Republicans Lost (It Wasn't Pro-Lifers)

One of the primary tasks of a historian, as I understand it, is to craft a coherent narrative out of the available facts. These narratives are important, as people are often suspicious to the point of irrationality when presented with information that contradicts their preconceptions. For this reason, I think it is worthwhile to push back on a few of the narratives that have been circulating over the past week about the reasons for the Republican defeat. A number of commentators have suggested that the Republican party’s anti-abortion position is hurting the party with social moderates, and that the party going forward needs to distance itself from pro-lifers.

One way to evaluate this advice is to identify the primary causes of the recent Republican loss. Why did 53% of voters choose Barack Obama, when 51% had voted for George Bush four years ago? It seems to me that the three primary reasons were Iraq, the economy, and the McCain campaign, in that order.

The Iraq War

The Iraq war, more than other issue, damaged Bush’s credibility. Bush had a 28% approval rating among voters according to the exit polls. There is a clear correlation between the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq in 2005-2006 and a sharp decline in Bush’s approval ratings, from which he has not recovered. Obama was wise to use “George Bush” as McCain’s nickname during the campaign. Considering there was an incumbent of McCain’s party with an approval rating of 28% in the White House, it is surprising the results of the election were not more lop-sided: a switch of 3.5% of voters would have altered the outcome.

The Economy

63% of voters listed the economy as the most important issue this election, and those voters supported Barack Obama 53-44%, which accounts for roughly six points of Obama’s seven point margin of victory. Rightly or wrongly (I think erroneously), the electorate tends to blame or credit the President with the state of the economy, and, again, it was unfortunate for McCain that the incumbent was a Republican. Granted, it is possible that McCain could have mitigated this effect by handling the issue more deftly, but it certainly hurt him.

The McCain Campaign

McCain ran an unfocused, substance-free campaign. The strategy over the last two months of the campaign appeared to be avoid policy substance at all costs, while attacking Obama in a different way every week (the strategy since the campaign ended appears to be to attack Palin anonymously in a different way every other day to divert blame from the campaign architects). McCain was unable to explain basic features of his domestic policies. Why did he want to buy up home mortgages? Why was his healthcare plan better? Why was the bailout necessary if it was simply a consequence of ‘Wall Street greed’? Why did he want tax breaks for companies? Why couldn’t he promise everything Obama was? The Obama campaign had a clear, focused message: tax cuts for 95% of Americans and improved health care. McCain never answered the basic question: What are you going to do if you are elected President?

One can disagree with the relative importance of the explanations listed above, or offer new ones. But the exit polling data provides little evidence that the pro-life positions in the Republican platform were a substantial drag on the ticket last Tuesday. I have yet to see a strong case for the proposition that the appointments of Roberts and Alito, or the passage of the Partial-Birth Abortion ban have hurt the party, and Bush was elected fairly comfortable four years ago while articulating these views. Additionally, considering the fact that over half of Republicans support overturning Roe, it seems to me that any serious proposal for increasing the size of the Republican coalition should not begin with alienating one of its largest constituencies. There are any number of ways to explain the Republican defeat last Tuesday, and it is undeniable that some potential Republican voters are unsympathetic to the pro-life position, nevertheless a narrative focusing primarily on the role of pro-lifers in Tuesday’s defeat is deeply flawed.

15 Responses to Narrative of a Defeat: Why the Republicans Lost (It Wasn't Pro-Lifers)

  • Tito Edwards says:

    Abortion was only mentioned once in all the POTUS debates. I highly doubt as well that the GOP needs to distance itself from Pro-Lifers. What the GOP needs to do is to understand who they are before they put out a weak candidate such as McCain (ie, Dole) again.

  • It’s interesting that Iraq is listed first, in that few people cited it in exit polls, but I think you may have a pretty solid case there. Bush’s approval ratings tanked over the situation in Iraq and rightly or wrongly they never rebounded when the situation there got better against late last year and throughout this one. (That could have a lot to do with the media’s tendency to only cover exciting, and thus bad, news — not the tentatively good news which has been more the norm in Iraq lately.)

    It strikes me as an unfair reason for McCain to lose, in that he championed the surge and counter-insurgency approach (at personal political risk) which eventually brought things to their current relative stability. But life is notoriously unfair, and I think that you’re probably right.

  • Mark DeFrancisis says:

    Very balanced and well written analysis, John Henry…

    Darwin Catholic,

    People probably saw in John McCain th every poor mindset that got us into the Iraqi War in the 1st place. With Iran on the horizon, he scared many into thoughts of an unnecessary, brashly waged war ofcataclysmic proportions.

  • Gerard E. says:

    Would flipflop the order- 1. economy 2. McCain campaign 3. Iraq way way behind the other two. #3 not much of an issue thanks to our guys and gals taking care of business who we honor today with vets from other conflicts. Good point by Prof. Dr. Krauthammer that McCain’s chances melted down with Lehman Bros., Merrill Lynch, AIG on that bizarre Sunday night in September. Pocketbook issues will take precedence in any campaign if no other causes scream loud enough. The thought of not even having a pocketbook was enough to send many voters into the arms of the Dollar Store Messiah, the Greater Advocate of Greater Gummint. McC’s campaign was an unholy mess- allowing him to jibber and jabber and say the ca-waziest things on the economy. In truth he was not measurably more coherent than Obama just less willing to find solutions thru Greater Gummint. Hey he coulda gotten shellacked by 20 or more points that’s how bad this financial sector mess coulda gotten. Seems like once again Obama was more lucky than good. In Illinois primary for Senate his Dem opponent dumped out after horrible charges by ex-wife the actress who used to be on a Star Trek show and James Woods’ boss on Shark. Then onto the general election when his opponent was Alan Keyes, imported from MD, who promptly acted like a damn fool. In 08 he gets an opponent who has spent most of his career bucking the party whose support he needed, who wandered in and out of traffic like a motorist who spent too much quality time at the Dew Drop Inn. Luck resembles fossil fuel in that it burns out sooner or later. Come 2010 The Pres-Elect may long for the good ol’ days of the ’08 campaign. Where he had unfair advantages.

  • John Henry says:

    Gerard E. – I think the financial crisis was the nail in the coffin, but the deeper problem was the political climate was very hostile to Republicans, primarily because of Bush’s unpopularity. Every time Sen. Obama referred to ‘the failed policies of George Bush,’ I think many voters thought of the mistakes that were made about the presence of WMD’s and the botched handling of the war for several years (pre-Surge), along with other secondary problems like Katrina and the unsuccessful attempts at immigration reform. You could be right, however, that the economy would have delivered the election to the Democrats even without the mistakes in Iraq.

    Regarding Obama, it should be acknowledged that he defeated the Clinton’s in the Democratic primary – that took more than luck. The rest of his political career, as you observed, has been remarkably easy.

  • Tito Edwards says:

    I also agree that the economy and the perceived Bush failures were the cause. Obama will be in for a rude awakening if he believes he got a mandate for his social views on abortion and same sex marriage among many others. The USCCB seems to have gained their voice the preceding few months ever since the Pope’s visit to America.

    Let’s pray for President-elect Obama’s conversion on his road to the inauguration.

  • Gerard E. says:

    JH- Iraq was not a mistake. Our guys and gals have done noble work that will be lauded by future writers of books/holograms/other new techno formats. Of course our President-Elect was lauded for admitting that secrecy in certain military ops is a swell idea. Forgetting that President Bush was fried parboiled and scorched by D.C. Dems and their MSM flacks for just such activities. No doubt to preserve the lives of these valiant warriors in harm’s way. Given the growlings of Putin, Chavez, Ahmadingdong, Beijing, there may be a lot more secrecy in the next two years. Unless things go kaboom very loudly. Also, Obama was lucky in that the La Hillary Campaign was among the most dysfunctional that ever was in this great country. Numerous higher-ups in more intense combat with one another for turf, access to Her Hillaryness’ ear, etc. than defeat of Illinois upstart. Leading to the calculated but accurate decision to throw 18 million voters under the proverbial bus. Surprise. They got up, dusted themselves off, and boarded the Obama Express. And one more thing- I hope Slick Willie got serious bank for service above and beyond duty for Obama campaign. Send him to stump for a candidate, any candidate, and watch that poor soul give mournful concession speech.

  • Mark Windsor says:

    One of the primary tasks of a historian, as I understand it, is to craft a coherent narrative out of the available facts.

    Correct.

    These narratives are important, as people are often suspicious to the point of irrationality when presented with information that contradicts their preconceptions. For this reason, I think it is worthwhile to push back on a few of the narratives that have been circulating over the past week about the reasons for the Republican defeat.

    Ah, but what you’re seeing now isn’t history being written. It’s still journalism. The best a historian could do at this point is to look for context from the past, not offer a serious story as to what happened and why. The real historical narratives won’t be seriously attempted for a generation (more than likely).

  • John Henry says:

    “Ah, but what you’re seeing now isn’t history being written. It’s still journalism.”

    Mark W. – I agree entirely. My point was simply that narratives are important (whether they be journalistic or historical). Thanks for taking the time to correct the ambiguity – apologies for not being clearer.

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