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Republicans and Grover Norquist Must Answer Question: Liberty for Whom?

11/11/2012 07:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

After an election in which 88 percent of Mitt Romney's vote was white, while 45 percent of Barack Obama's vote was non-white, it is easy to conclude that the failure of the Romney campaign rested with the Republican Party's failure to adapt to changing national demographics. Perhaps that is true, yet there is little new in this assessment. Through the fall campaign, there was no expectation that Romney would approach W's 40 percent share of the Latino vote, and few paid attention to the Asian American community -- the fastest growing minority group that now comprises 6 percent of the U.S. population -- which voted Democrat in higher proportions than any major group other than Black voters.

But Republicans did not expect women to turn on them. And yet they should have seen that coming.

In the final weeks of the race, both campaigns focused on the undecided women voters in swing states, and unlike any race in memory, issues of reproductive freedom emerged as a dominant issue. For years, Americans have been split on reproductive rights issues, but pro-choice women voters -- a large share of that undecided vote -- have traditionally been far less likely to have that issue move their vote than their pro-life counterparts.

But this year turned out to be different. Early on in the primary season, the controversy surrounding Virginia legislation requiring trans-vaginal ultrasounds in advance of legal abortions foreshadowed what was to come. By election day, two Tea Party senatorial candidates would see their campaigns fail largely on the basis of comments delving into their views on issues of rape and abortion, and arguably it was the patronizing, and to many misogynistic, tenor of Republican campaigns that cost them control of the U.S. Senate.

Polling -- a science that has been vindicated by the election results -- consistently indicated that women voters viewed Mitt Romney and the Republican Party as more competent overseers of economic affairs. As such, when the presidential race appeared to come down to making those undecided women in swing states choose between voting their views on the economy and threats to reproductive rights, that had all the appearances of being a winning hand for the Romney campaign. But that was not to be the case. Individual liberty, it seems, trumped economics.

Pro-choice women may not have voted on that basis historically in large part because Roe vs. Wade did not appear to be under threat. Yet the tenor of this year's election campaign brought issues of reproductive rights to the fore in blunt fashion, and by the end it was reasonable for any woman voter to conclude that in fact her personal liberty was very much under assault by organs of the state, and that there was a visible and rising tide that loomed to put harsher measures into law. In truth, for all the encroachments on individual liberty that might be evident in America today -- and that are often decried by Republicans -- it is hard to imagine a more fundamental threat to individual liberty than legislation telling a women what she may or may not do, or what procedures she must endure to exercise her legal rights.

If any single Republican should have anticipated that women would turn on Romney, it was Grover Norquist. Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform, knows better than most that threats to individual liberty are a powerful force in American politics, as the pursuit of individual liberty against encroaching state power has been the premise of Norquist's "center-right" coalition that has dominated Republican Party politics over the past three decades. The Norquist coalition has been premised on bringing together groups of voters who, in Norquist's words, want one thing from the central government -- to be left alone.

Within the Norquist coalition, most voting groups -- such as gun owners and home schoolers --are truly voting an interest of individual liberty. The pro-life and anti-gay groups are distinctly different, however. For those groups, the issues on which they are moved to vote are driven by religious beliefs, and unlike Norquist's statement, they do not want to be left alone, but rather to capture the power of the state to impose their own values views on the nation. The irony of the 2012 election is that the Republican Party may have foundered in large measure on the hypocrisy of one of its core principles: Female voters in swing states rejected a Republican Party that they otherwise might have supported specifically because of looming threats to their personal liberty.

If freedom and liberty are to remain the siren call of the Republican Party, the Party must account for its blindness to the question, liberty for whom? This year, centrist Americans whose vote could not be taken for granted by either party looked past pocketbook issues and voted their liberty interest and in support of the liberty interests of their fellow citizens. They voted against the candidate and political party they believed would better manage our economic future, and in every state where the rights of gay Americans were on the ballot, the outcome was an affirmation of personal liberty.

There is no certainty that the 2012 election will mark a pivotal realignment, as many suggest. Each party should take a lesson from the electorate. For Republicans, the message is that their now-decades old coalition is faltering in the face of its own hypocrisy. The party that was once the standard bearer of liberty has lost its way, captured by interest groups that would deny to others the liberty they themselves hold so dear.

For their part, Democrats now caught up in the hubris of victory should be aware that they have dodged a bullet. The electoral college landslide and three million vote margin in the national vote belied the closeness of the election, as a shift of only 120,000 votes in four states -- a mere one eighth of one percent shift of the national vote -- would have put Mitt Romney in the White House. The Democratic Party will not fare well in years to come as long as the majority of Americans continue to distrust its competence to manage of the national economy, as exit polls suggest. This year, liberty may have trumped economics, but that is not a formula that Democrats can rely on in elections to come.