NEW YORK -- What ought to pain Republicans most about Barack Obama’s victory is that 2012 was entirely winnable for them. In European elections over the past few years, voters have thrown out leaders who were in charge during the worst of the financial crisis, whether those leaders deserved the blame or not. Economic indicators in the United States, where an unemployment rate of 8 percent is highly correlated with defeat for the incumbent party, pointed in the same direction. Obama himself had proven a disappointment to many of his former supporters, going from a beloved symbol of generational and social change in 2008 to a detached and remote figure, with limited ability to touch an emotional chord in the electorate.
That Mitt Romney lost nonetheless is in part a tribute to his own weaknesses as a candidate. The Obama campaign put Romney on the defensive early about his work at Bain Capital, and left him there. The Republican nominee made any number of horrendous gaffes. He ran a disastrous GOP convention. He never found a way to talk about himself or his agenda in a way that middle-class voters could relate to.
But even a clumsy candidate might have beaten Obama if not for a simple factor that could not be overcome: the GOP’s growing extremism. The Republican strategy of making the election a referendum on the president’s handling of the economy was perfectly sound. The problem was that the Republican Party couldn’t pass the credibility test itself. For many voters disenchanted with Obama, it still was not safe to vote for his opponent.
This failure began with the spectacle of the extended primary season, which was dominated by candidates with views far outside the political mainstream. Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum rejected the separation of church and state. Georgia’s Newt Gingrich challenged the notion of judicial supremacy. Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann claimed the government had been infiltrated by radical Muslims. Donald Trump of New York refused to recognize the validity of Obama’s birth certificate. Rick Perry of Texas wanted to take down more parts of the federal government than he could successfully name. In the debates, the country saw the GOP talking to itself and sounding like a bizarre fringe party, not a responsible governing one.
Romney is not a right-wing extremist. To win the nomination, though, he had to feign being one, recasting himself as “severely conservative” and eschewing the reasonableness that made him a successful, moderate governor of the country’s most liberal state. He had to pass muster with his party’s right-wing base on taxes, immigration, climate change, abortion and gay rights. Many of his statements on these issues were patently insincere, but that was hardly reassuring. Romney’s very insincerity and flexibility made it improbable that he would stand up to the GOP’s hyperpartisan congressional wing once elected any more than he had during the primaries.
Romney’s pandering to the base made it possible for the Obama campaign to portray him as a right-wing radical from the start of the campaign. Fear that he didn’t have the base locked down kept Romney from moving smoothly to the center once he had secured the nomination. It further encouraged his choice of Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, a popular figure with the tea party. And when Romney tried, much too late, to move closer to the center, Republican Senate candidates, like Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, kept popping up with disgusting reminders of the GOP’s retrograde views on gender issues.
For women, Latinos and young voters tempted to abandon Obama, the old Romney might have been a plausible alternative. The new Romney, fettered by a feverish GOP, was too risky a choice. According to exit poll results, Romney won men as expected, but lost among women by 11 points — too large a gender gap to be overcome.
Demographic change and better economic circumstances stand to make the Republican road back to the White House an even steeper climb in future years. Simply put, the party has to present a more conciliatory and reasonable face to sell itself to swing voters. To do that, it must elevate its own moderate voices, cut loose its theocrats, and liberate itself from the domination of tea party know-nothings.
So let the season of Republican recriminations begin. The GOP now faces the challenge of self-examination and internal reform that Democrats began to undertake after losing twice to Ronald Reagan. It desperately needs the kind of centrist reform movement that was led on the other side by the Democratic Leadership Council, which paved the way for the election of a centrist Democrat named Bill Clinton in the ’90s. Without that sort of renewal movement, the 2012 election may come to be seen less as a fluke than a harbinger.
Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group and author of “The Bush Tragedy.” A version of this column appears in the Financial Times.