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Morning Jay: Barack Obama and the Triumph of Identity Politics

6:00 AM, Nov 8, 2012 • By JAY COST
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The profound hypocrisy of today's Democratic party should have been a hanging curveball for the Republican party – and it may yet be. But it was not this year. By nominating Mitt Romney, for all of his many strengths, he was too easily denigrated as a wealthy Northeastern elitist, the very kind who now regularly votes Democratic! His personal profile fit that mold entirely, and the “47 percent” videotape was a gift from above for Team Obama, as it seemed to prove their point that he was "not one of us," as one Obama ad so tastelessly put it.

In other words, much like 1948, the GOP nominated a candidate who played right into the trap that the Democrats had set. That year, it was Thomas Dewey. This year, Mitt Romney.

The heart and soul of the Republican party remains what it has been for generations – the middle class outside the elite quarters of the Northeast. This is why – in the 80 years between the Civil War and the Great Depression – the GOP almost always nominated a candidate originally from the Midwest: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, and Herbert Hoover. Only three nominees came from the Northeast -- Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, who entered the presidency through the vice-presidency, and James Blaine, who lost. Even in the post-war era, the party has found success almost always from outside the Northeast. Dwight Eisenhower was from Kansas by way of Texas. Richard Nixon was a farm boy from California. Ronald Reagan went to college in Peoria, Illinois. George W. Bush’s grandfather was a senator from Connecticut, but he spoke with a folksy Texas twang.

A nominee with this kind of background would have been more able to resist Obama’s demagoguery, and we might well have a new president-elect today.

Put simply: identity matters in politics, oftentimes more than anything else. We can view political battles in budgetary terms, or in terms of cultural hot button issues, but one of the most important elements of voting is seeing yourself in the person you elect. It looks to me like Barack Obama convinced would-be GOP voters who never would have supported him to stay home rather than support this “other” fellow, Mitt Romney.

In 2016, the Republicans cannot allow the Democratic party to get away with this tactic again. It must nominate a candidate who resonates, on an essential level, with the values and identity of the heartland. Since World War Two, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush all managed to do that, and each won twice. There is a lesson there for the GOP.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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