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Jeffrey Gedmin Headshot

It Was Romney's to Lose

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"Not really hewn from presidential timber," was the way British conservative columnist Matthew D'Ancona put it this summer. This was after the gaffe-prone Mitt Romney, who was in London for the Olympics, quickly ruffled feathers upon arrival by suggesting that preparation for the Olympic Games was not what it should have been. So much for the 'special relationship.'

So much for Romney for President.

In truth, well before the Olympics I found it difficult in London to find genuine Romney enthusiasts, indeed including on the right. Last night, at a private club in Mayfair known to cater to a well-heeled conservative crowd, the election night party was hardly buzzing (the waiter reported quietly that another guest had been expected, but she apparently had to cancel because of the flu). At the US Embassy up the street festivities were in full swing. Early on, though, and well before Florida was ever called for the president I found one Tory operative after another moping through the crowd, already reconciled with four more years of GOP opposition.

What happened? This election was surely Romney's to lose. Low growth, troubling unemployment figures, massive debt, soaring entitlement spending, fears of another recession. I'm not part of the demonize Obama crowd. I've lived in Europe far too long that if I approached every social democrat with fear and loathing I'd have virtually no one to talk to. But on matters of the economy, I do think in times like these that the newly re-elected president is a potential weapon of mass destruction. If you want to have a debate about how to re-distribute wealth, fine. But first you have to create it, and I fear our president has not the slightest clue. Remember the fairly wicked admonishments of Obama supporter Steve Jobs?

I also fear that it's cluelessness that has Republicans in their current mess. I don't think for a moment that it was his numerous gaffes that did Romney in (and no, Russia is not our number one geopolitical foe). I think Obama's opponent was actually mortally wounded by a non-gaffe. It was that "47 percent" remark at the exclusive Baton Raton gathering that was revealing and crippling. He later apologized. The truth is, though, there have been people around Romney in this campaign who do believe that America is divided between noble contributors and creators and pathetic moochers and parasites.

As point of fact, I liked the way Irwin Stelzer laid this out at the time in the Weekly Standard:

"Romney is right that about half of Americans pay no income taxes...he was wrong to fail to mention that 28.3% are working and have highly regressive payroll taxes deducted from their pay checks, 10.3% pay no taxes because they are retired and living on social security benefits they paid for throughout their working lives, 6.9% earn less than $20,000 annually, and thousands of soldiers in combat zones are exempt from income taxes. That's virtually all of Romney's 47%. To say that these people refuse to 'take personal responsibility' for their lives borders on calumny http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/not-gaffe_652869.html."

Even more to the point. Derision and disparagement do not make for a very compelling vision. Nor does condescension (i.e.,"we're just trying to liberate these poor saps from their meaningless existence of dependency").

Lesson one: cartoons don't work. Lesson two: the right-wing culture war on behalf of free enterprise is failing.

It remains a fact, the only way out of America's increasingly grave predicament is a return to a more robust culture of free enterprise. But the case for free enterprise must be serious and thoughtful and emphasize empathy and inclusion. It's not about math (see whiz kid Paul Ryan's charts and graphs). It's not about free market platitudes.

I suppose we can't speak of 'compassion conservatism' anymore. And 'bleeding heart libertarianism' doesn't quite do the trick either, I suppose. But either we figure it out soon, or I bet we'll see real pitch fork populism and fragmentation of the worst sort just down the road.