In many respects, the 2012 election played out as a close cousin of the 2004 contest. A vulnerable incumbent president in a bad political environment faced a weak challenger who lacked a core ideology and who articulated no clear vision for the country. In both campaigns the challenger chose to present himself as a default choice, rather than an insurgent. In both campaigns the president pursued a base-turnout strategy. And in both years the president won, by a margin of victory just around 2.4 percentage points.
The similarities continued following the elections. After Mitt Romney’s defeat, many Republicans and conserv-atives were caught surprised. In the days that followed there was fatalistic talk about how America had undergone a fundamental change. Some of this analysis centered on demographics. There was concern about a permanent shift in the racial composition of the electorate and about how changes in the institution of marriage—more divorce, more cohabitation, and later marriage—might be permanently increasing the pool of single voters. (The first worry seems mistaken: Romney’s main problem with white voters wasn’t that they were in decline—it was that so many of them didn’t show up for him. The second is more plausible.)
There was also a lot of talk about how Romney’s loss was a sign of a fundamental change in America’s character. People contended that this was no longer a “center-right” country. Or that the nation had turned its back on the free market. Or morphed into Greece. One of the more prominent lines of thinking was that the “takers” in America finally outnumbered the “makers” and that, per Ben Franklin’s warning, the electorate had entered a death spiral where it would continually vote itself more money. It all sounded eerily like Romney’s contention that 47 percent of the country isn’t responsible for itself and can no longer be persuaded by conservative argument. Doom to follow shortly.
The existential despair was familiar because liberals and Democrats said the same sorts of things immediately following the 2004 vote. Like Mitt Romney’s, John Kerry’s final polls before Election Day—not to mention the early exit polls on the day itself—suggested he had a reasonable chance of victory. So when defeat came, Democrats were both discouraged and shocked. And their first reaction was to conclude that America had changed in a fundamental way.
A week after the election, a group of African-American journalists gathered at Harvard to discuss the implications of Kerry’s loss. Summing up the meeting, the Detroit Free Press’s Rochelle Riley concluded that “it could be the end of civilization as we know it” because “Bush’s next term is not four years. It is 30 years, based on its impact.” In the Baltimore Sun, USC professor Diane Winston worried that Democrats were “ill-prepared for this new, faith-based world.” A Seattle Times columnist wrote, “after three decades of cultural and religious struggle—including a fair amount of concerted, premeditated political exploitation—the religious right is more mainstream in America than once-mainline denominations. This election confirms the influence and clout of those described by scholars as the socially conservative, theologically evangelical. They are our friends and neighbors, and unlike 18-to-29-year-olds, they vote in big numbers.” All of which led columnist Leonard Pitts to wonder, “Maybe this is where America ends. . . . Small wonder that everywhere I go, people are talking about moving to Canada. That’s the kind of joke you make when you no longer recognize your country.”
At the New York Times the hysteria was even more pronounced. Garry Wills called Kerry’s defeat “the day the Enlightenment went out.” Democratic operative Andrei Cherny wrote, “On Wednesday morning, Democrats across the country awoke to a situation they have not experienced since before the New Deal: We are now, without a doubt, America’s minority party.” Thomas Frank identified the Democrats’ problem as being one of perpetual weakness on the “values” subject:
Democrats still have no coherent framework for confronting this chronic complaint, much less understanding it. Instead, they “triangulate,” they accommodate, they declare themselves converts to the Republican religion of the market, they sign off on NAFTA and welfare reform, they try to be more hawkish than the Republican militarists. And they lose. And they lose again. Meanwhile, out in Red America, the right-wing populist revolt continues apace, its fury at the “liberal elite” undiminished by the Democrats’ conciliatory gestures or the passage of time.
Thomas Friedman swallowed hard and croaked that “what troubled me yesterday was my feeling that this election was tipped because of an outpouring of support for George Bush by people who don’t just favor different policies than I do—they favor a whole different kind of America. We don’t just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is.”
This last bit of wisdom was distilled in an Internet meme known as “Jesusland.” The day after the election someone on a video-game message board posted a Photoshopped map of North America. Canada, America’s West Coast, and the northeast corridor were colored pink and labeled the “United States of Canada.” The remaining territory, colored green, was labeled “Jesus-land.” The map went on to wide acclaim and was featured on nearly every liberal blog and website in the land. There was a Jesusland book. The hipster songwriter Ben Folds wrote a song about it.
Four years later Jesusland elected the most liberal Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson while simultaneously handing his party control of both houses of Congress.
The point of all this isn’t to suggest that Republicans are on the cusp of a resurgence or to argue that all politics is cyclical. Both, or neither, of those things might be true. Rather, it’s a reminder that the future is uncertain. In 2004 Democrats believed that the culture of America had irrevocably changed. Then came the housing bubble, the financial collapse, and Barack Obama. Events happen, individuals matter, and the first lessons learned are rarely helpful. Or right.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.