Had this presidential campaign been a chess match, one move would have merited a row of exclamation points. A chess master will violate the rules of strategy as neophytes understand them (“You’re gonna lose your Queen!”) but only because he sees possibilities on the board that are invisible to others.
In January, the Obama White House set out to pick a fight with the Catholic church over contraception. A Health and Human Services directive ordered that all insurance plans cover contraception, morning after pills, and sterilizations with no exceptions for religious conscience. This looked like an act of folly. Not only was it an affront to the free exercise of religion, but Catholics are the largest group of swing voters in the country. They are heavily concentrated in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and other potential swing states. And it was in the name of Obamacare—the most unpopular federal program in living memory—that the administration thumbed its nose at them.
The Obama campaign understood that “reproductive rights” are similar to “gun rights.” Even if the number of people who care about protecting them is small, all of them vote on the issue. And in a country that now has as many single women as married women, the number is not small. President Obama won the Catholic vote on the strength of a landslide among Hispanics. (Non-Hispanic Catholics opposed him 59-40 percent.) His pollster Joel Benenson credits him not just with identifying new demographic groups but also with figuring out how to appeal to them. “He won,” Benenson wrote in the New York Times, “because he articulated a set of values that define an America that the majority of us wish to live in.” For this election he is right.
Not since Jimmy Carter has a Democrat won an election this way. “Values” campaigns have favored Republicans. The journalist Thomas Frank warned in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? that Republicans were talking about the Bible and gays and abortion in order to distract attention from their failed economic agenda. “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about,” Frank wrote. In Republicanism he saw a movement “of working-class guys in Midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life.”
That is elegant writing, but the argument was wrong in three ways. First, the Democratic alternative to the Republican economic program had been failing since the 1970s. (That is why Bill Clinton himself rejected it.) Second, to the extent it involved regulation and welfare, federal economic policy ruffled the values even of those who stood to benefit from it. And third, Republicans were not the only ones peddling a values agenda. They were just the only ones succeeding at it.
This year Democrats’ arguments on values were heard. This was a “values” election as strident as the ones from culture wars past in which Christians marched against subsidies for Mapplethorpe, creationists vied for seats on Kansas school boards, and William Bennett demanded to know where the outrage was. What was different about this year’s culture war is that Republicans lost it. They ran a campaign without any of the abrasive stuff Frank disapproved of. Their presidential candidate lost himself in theories about what motivates “job creators.” Certain senatorial candidates did try to raise cultural issues. Those in Missouri and Indiana showed themselves out of practice.
The values were different, but structurally the outcome was the same one that we have seen decade after decade. Where two candidates argue over values, the public may prefer one to the other. But where only one candidate has values, he wins, whatever those values happen to be.
Barack Obama has a core moral belief about abortion. It is that women should always be able to get one. Mitt Romney’s views on abortion are roughly those of the old Groucho Marx declaration: “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them . . . well, I have others.” President Obama has a core moral belief about gay marriage, too. He supports it. His May interview on ABC in which he announced his rallying to the cause was a liberation. He had stacked his Justice Department with pro-gay-marriage litigators. He had announced, along with Eric Holder, that he would not defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act. He had grown dependent on donors who cared about gay marriage a great deal. To have claimed to defend traditional marriage would have exposed him to accusations of hypocrisy. At least in theory—there was, in retrospect, little danger that the Romney campaign would bring such things up in practice.
A study by the Wesleyan Media Project last week found that the Obama campaign was the most negative campaign ever. With 59 percent of its ads negative, it outstripped even the notorious George W. Bush reelection campaign (55 percent) of 2004. Romney hardly knew what hit him. He liked to describe his experience running companies as relevant to running a country. This is a misunderstanding he shared with Europeans, and with those of Obama’s
supporters who have called for an end to all this values talk.
A modern, diverse democratic republic is something very different from a company. It relies for cohesion on shared narratives passionately believed in, even if they are
passionately believed in only for a few weeks around election time. Run it as a business and it will fall to pieces. Obama has made a lot of mistakes, but running the country as a business is not one of them. Like Bush before him, he is always stressing how America is the only place where membership in the nation derives not from race, ethnicity, or religion but from belief in an idea.
The bright side of that vision is a beautiful thing, but there is a dark side to it, too. If America is an idea, you can belong to it regardless of your ethnic background. But you cannot belong to it regardless of your beliefs. A tendency to lecture the American public on what they are supposed to believe has become a constant in the president’s oratory. “That’s who we are,” he said in his victory speech on Tuesday. He was talking about the need to help an 8-year-old girl with leukemia, a fairly uncontroversial proposition. But he uses this trope even when talking about the tiniest velleities, usually expanding it to “that’s not who we are as a people.” If there is one disturbing truth that Obama has always understood, it is that a winning American campaign is always about values, is never lukewarm, and is generally a bit scary-looking to foreigners and losers.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.