It wasn't about a mistake-filled Romney campaign, although mistakes there were. It wasn't about the auto bailout, although it probably swung Ohio and Wisconsin. It wasn't about hostility to immigrants, although that cemented Latino voters for the Democrats. It wasn't about extreme anti-abortion politics, although Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly rode that wave. It wasn't about technique and a vastly superior Obama ground game, although that was probably the difference in a bunch of swing states. It wasn't about the hard-right tilt of the Republican primaries, although they trapped Romney into positions that sold in Oklahoma and West Virginia and almost nowhere else.
It was about ideas.
The Republicans, not Obama, insisted on a substantive debate, and made Mitt Romney their reluctant ideologue-in-chief. On economic policy they chose to be the party of economic austerity. On social issues they chose to be the party of government control of issues of sex, orientation and reproductive choice. On foreign policy they chose to be the party of muscular growling. And, as almost always happens, the American electorate figured it out. And rejected it.
We knew that our economy was in tough shape, and that there was blame enough for everyone. We knew we had a problem with the status of millions of immigrants. We knew that promises were made in 2008 that weren't kept. We knew that our politics are defined by piles of cash and gridlock.
But we were not willing to adopt the right-wing program that Republicans have adopted.
It wasn't that Obama offered sharp ideological alternatives. Other than a mild (and popular) insistence on an upper-income tax increase, Obama was the devil we knew, and a responsible and comforting persona, not a general leading an ideological army. He triumphed largely because the Republicans gave him back his presidency. Imagine a Mitt Romney running on something like his record as governor of Massachusetts: Health care for all, reasonable environmental regulation, pro-choiceish, pro-immigration reform, anti-tax and inclusive of women and minorities and 350 electoral votes.
The way in which ideas infiltrate themselves into elections is a little mysterious. We shy away from academic debate and discussion. Ads and slogans dominate our daily experience of campaigns. Yet politicians absorb and transmit ideas that we choose. Romney's "47-percent-of-Americans-are-takers-and-wastrels" allowed Americans to taste the Occupy Wall Street's "99-percent-versus-1-percent" war cry. The two campaigns became vehicles for two movements with diametrically opposed visions of American. The Republicans were captured by the Tea Party; The Democrats adopted the 99 percent versus 1 percent agenda of Occupy Wall Street. America went with OWS.
This mysterious interplay between campaigns and ideas is good. We avoid the ideological splintering of European politics and still make ideological choices. American elections somehow manage to do the job a democracy requires. We're smarter than we think we are.