Great Campaigner, Not So Great at Governance

At every turn, it seems like the GOP has still not quite recovered from the two presidential elections won by President Obama. Some use his two landslide electoral victories as proof that the American electorate has shifted leftward. The reality is, however, that it is more of an anomaly than something indicative of a larger swing. Much has been made of the fact that the Republican Party has only won the popular vote once in the last 20 years. This is true; over the last six presidential elections, the Republican candidate only won twice, and one of those times was without winning the popular vote.

But like a lot of raw data, the sample size betrays what the statistic is supposed to be telling us. By limiting what we are looking at to the last 20 years alone, all we see is dominance on the part of the Democratic Party. But were we to expand that back to the six prior election cycles, only looking at the races before President Obama ran, and look to see how many times each party won the popular vote, we would find that each party won three times (Bush 43, Bush 41, and Reagan for the Republicans and Gore, Clinton and Clinton for the Democrats).

If we were to look to see what the average vote share was during the pre-Obama era for each party over that time period, amazingly, the Republican candidates beat the Democrats by an average of 48.1% to 45.8%. Even adding the two Obama landslide wins doesn’t make this a Democrat winner. The gap closes, however, but the GOP candidate beat the Democrat by 47.7% to 47.35%.

What is even more revealing is the fact that, outside of Obama, Democrats have not won a real majority since 1976, when Jimmy Carter rode Vietnam and the Watergate scandal to beat Gerald Ford. Even then, Carter could only eke out 50.1% of the vote. Republicans, on the other hand, in that same time frame, cleared 50% four times (Bush 43, Bush 41, Reagan and Reagan.)

Interestingly, if we were to expand the timeframe to go all the way back to the death of FDR, we would find Democrats only surpassing Carter’s 50.1% mark one time — when Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964. The GOP nominee surpassed 50.5% a total of seven times during that time.

There are two things that become clear when taking all this into account. First off, numbers and data can be manipulated to represent whatever the presenter wants them to represent. Second, rumors of the demise of the great “center-right coalition” have been exaggerated.

President Obama is clearly a gifted campaigner. His strategy of peeling away the center of the center-right coalition by painting the conservative ideology in the starkest of terms was wildly successful. But most of that success was his, as was his ability to dodge critique of his own ideology — and his opponents’ reluctance to take him on. When it comes to governing, however, it is an entirely different ballgame.

During the 2008 race, after Obama won the Iowa caucus in an upset, Hillary Clinton mocked the soaring rhetoric he used to get elected by repeating a line from Mario Cuomo. “You campaign in poetry,” she said. “You govern in prose.” Obama seems incapable of speaking in prose — and continues to make missteps that seem beneath the person who executed the flawless campaigns he has.

Here’s the president, who became president in large part due to his opposition to the Iraq war, who is ready to engage in a war that is already unpopular. In 2007, Obama criticized the Bush administration, writing, “In the case of Europe, we dismissed European reservations about the wisdom and necessity of the Iraq war.” Now, as National Review’s Rich Lowry points out, “It used to be that if dozens of foreign countries signed onto a U.S. military intervention, but not France, we were ‘going it alone.’ Now, if we have a military coalition consisting exclusively of France, we are leading the world.”

But Obama isn’t just having trouble convincing other countries to come along on this Syrian adventure. The latest media tallies seem to indicate that even if the Authorization of Force resolution would make it through the Senate, it would take a lot of “pork” spending to get it through the House. Even Nancy Pelosi said she didn’t know if she could get a majority of Democrats to back the president. As the days pass and the list of “no” votes continues to grow, the president has nobody to blame but himself and his refusal to speak in prose.Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, said Sunday that although he supports the use of force in Syria, he doubts the president will get the votes he needs. He said, “I think that goes back not just to the issue itself, but you can’t begin to build a relationship with Congress for the first time when you need their support on something like this.”

“A week and a half ago, my office actually reached out to the White House and said, ‘Hey, we support the strike on Syria; we’re going to help you round up support if you need it,’” Kinzinger said. “I haven’t heard back from the White House yet. I haven’t heard back from anyone. I don’t even know who my White House liaison is.”

With the president so disengaged from the nuts and bolts of governance, heading for a major defeat on this resolution, Republicans have little to worry about the carry effect of the campaigns he had effectively run. They do, however, need to remain true to themselves, which is an entire subject by itself.