11/07/2012 03:30 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Victory and Failure

As many have noted, the result of a two-year campaign season in which billions of dollars were spent on messaging is this: no change. The benchmark sentiments in post-election America are relief and disappointment. Inspiration and hope are little heard.

If President Obama's victory is less spirited than the 2008 election, even to his followers, the lowered energy is due to the defensive quality of the incumbent campaign. Four years ago, Obama's pitch was founded on the twin exaltations of hope and change. In 2012 it was the Republican hope for change, and promise of it, that galvanized opposition to the president. But even that change was sourly framed as a reversal, a correction, and a backward-looking return. The Romney promise was to pave over a four-year interruption of traditional conservative values.

As a defensive incumbent, Obama was vulnerable. The lukewarm consensus of his first term was that the president was a timid leader -- an outstanding articulator of national strategy but a poor executor. An obstructive legislative branch is factored into the assessment the way liabilities of a company's balance sheet are factored into its stock valuation. But in both cases, the burden of performance remains on the chief executive, who either demonstrates the dynamism required to coax progress from the grip of inertia, or not.

This is not to dismiss President Obama's first-term accomplishments, which bafflingly did not receive enough elucidation by the president and his spokespeople during long campaign. But compared to 2008, the wind was out of Obama's sails and his becalmed presidency was vulnerable to a smart opposition capable of addressing widespread frustration and distress without alienating large voting blocks.

The Republican campaign slid to defeat on the basis of two fatal flaws:

  • Fundamental misunderstanding of the country. It is a cartoonish cliche that the Republican party relates to only a single group of grumpy and aging white men. But any caricature is recognizable, and conservative arguments fail to acknowledge blocks of citizenry that represent increasingly established values: women and their right to control their bodies; gays and their right to marry; everyone's right to light up a joint. The conservative narrative plays as if on a black-and-white TV set in a colorful high-def world.
  • Campaign execution. Mitt Romney was a terrible candidate. This is not an idealogical opinion. The man's mistakes were epic. Perhaps he was pushed around by his party, but only an utterly tone-deaf politician, out of touch with demographic realities, would utter the phrase "self-deport" in a public discussion of immigration policy, or categorically state that he would kill the DREAM Act. But Romney's devastating fatal flaw was not tactical blundering; it was inauthenticity. The man appeared unable to reveal a true and unchanging core self, or was pathologically fearful of doing so. That void served to emphasize the veil-lowering moment that seemed like his most personal revelation: the 47-percent speech to donors. When a damning private statement feels more true than all public obfuscations and evasions (remember his elusive response to the teenage bullying episode?), a candidate cannot recover from inevitable tactical campaign errors.

Romney performed like a star baseball pitcher who couldn't get anyone out, even when playing against a team with an (arguably) average record. In baseball, that pitcher's team would take a hard look at its failing farm system of minor-league feeder clubs. If Mitt Romney was the best player the party could produce for a championship game held once every four years, there is a talent development problem. But there is upcoming talent in the minors: Christie, Rubio, and others. The challenge for the Republican guard is to escalate progressive political voices that have a viable understanding of the country.

Democrats should wish for better opposition candidates, too. No matter on which side of the aisle one sits, Americans are better served by dynamic political players across the spectrum, who project credibility and are vitally in touch with the country's diversity.