As if the primary season isn’t reason enough for Republicans to succumb to a sense of despair and futility, the latest polls show the president’s numbers are rebounding.
As Ed Morrissey has noted, his ratings on the economy and jobs are stuck, and his popularity is actually declining, but Barack Obama is still a slight favorite for re-election — even against Mitt Romney, whose purpose on earth is to seem electable.
Fortunately, parsing polls is often a waste of time, especially this far out. But the time is now for Republicans to start worrying about what they’re going to tell themselves — and the country — if Obama wins.
Maybe the Republican establishment cares more about saving the party than saving the country. Maybe four more years of Obama will prove a devastating nightmare from which there is no recovery. Whether or not those things are true, the right faces a painful internal argument over what a second Obama victory tells us about what’s happening to the American people.
Already, conservatives have long struggled with a love-hate relationship here. As a whole, Americans stubbornly refuse either to reject the Democrats’ worldview or to banish the GOP to the margins it occupied in the ’30s, ’40s, or ’60s. Libertarians, whom Obama seems sworn to offend to their very core, now face a similar predicament.
Why aren’t the president’s horrible policies driving voters away in droves? If ex-movement conservatives like David Frum are to be believed, it’s because the Republican Party has become a self-enclosed fantasyland, aggressively policed and enforced.
But the phenomena Frum describes may more be consequences than causes of the Republican predicament — which has less to do with the inner workings of the conservative mainstream and more with the simple fact that many Americans will vote for Democrats no matter what.
If Karl Rove’s signature strategy was to maximize turnout among a finite GOP base, the animating principle of the Democrats does him one better: expand the base, defined as those Americans who won’t vote against you no matter what Democrats in office do or don’t do.
The goals are two: First, a big bloc of voters who will show up at the polls and do their duty no matter how many promises have been broken, how many systemic problems have been shirked or exacerbated, and how little there is to show for it beyond high-profile acts of ideological tokenism.
Second, a huge population of nonvoters who won’t show up to vote against you — no matter how little the government’s massive transfers of wealth have improved their lot, or how socially immobile they have become, or how little real hope, as opposed to the kind you find only on a poster, they truthfully retain.
There’s always a little more support to be wrung from both these groups of supporters by demonizing Republicans, especially in the way Republicans themselves like to demonize (“They hate you for who you are!”).
But it’s time for Republicans to recognize that when it comes to expanding the Democratic base, it’s not about them. It’s about the left’s affirmative value proposition, which pretty much everyone intuitively understands in its unvarnished form.
Even as late as the ’90s, it appeared that the liberal base was inherently finite, because it was made up of aggrieved minorities, pampered celebrities, and career politicos. But as we learned last decade, there’s a veritable minority-industrial complex capable of creating and politicizing virtually any affinity group.
Meanwhile, a long decade of reality TV, college sports, and the like have democratized and commercialized the entertainment industry’s pseudo-aristocracies of actors, musicians, and professional athletes, growing the pie of people with a materialistic mindset of self-entitlement. (For every Tim Tebow, there are a thousand alumni of Flavor of Love and LA Ink.)
These developments aren’t liberal plots so much as sweeping cultural changes. But libertarians know well that even the most self-regarding and tribalistic enthusiast of the lower pleasures can also cultivate a basic appreciation for a day-in, day-out independence from the manipulative interference and supervision of a government that claims the prerogatives of omnicompetence while wasting their money, corrupting their representatives, and squandering their prosperity on a vast scale.
Nonetheless, for Democrats, there’s more and more low-hanging fruit to persuade in the other direction. If Barack Obama wins re-election, it means the liberal base really is growing, a lot. Despite the insane fears that the GOP will nominate someone average Americans think is a freak, the eventual nominee is fairly certain to be palatable enough that reasonable people actually dissatisfied with Obama will vote for him.
The trouble for Republicans is that so few people dissatisfied with Obama want to vote against him — and that so few ostensibly reasonable voters are willing to express any dissatisfaction at all. That might change as the race for president heats up. But there likely won’t be a sea change. And if there’s no change at all, or a change in the wrong direction, Republicans will have to change their tune, and perhaps even some of their official assumptions, about the American people.
The good news? They’ll still have a chance to change their sales pitch, too.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.