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A lesson for Republicans: No more moderates

By Harry Melkonian - posted Thursday, 29 November 2012


If the Republicans intend to re-take the White House in 2016, a lesson to take from the 2012 election is that moderate Republicans cannot win national elections. Historically moderate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had to try so hard to please the right-wing in his own Party that his campaign for centrist voters was confused and contradictory.

President Obama was comfortably re-elected because he is a man of the political left and Democratic Party liberals do not require constant reassurance of his liberal credentials. The President was able to campaign to the centre and appeal to non-aligned independent voters. It is fair to say that the President has taken his playbook from one of the modern American political masters – Ronald Reagan. The actor who was Governor of California for eight years and President for eight years was a man of the right. Conservatives needed no reassurance about Ronald Reagan. As Governor, and as President, Reagan always spoke of the Republican Party as a ‘Big Tent’ with room for everyone. He appointed a pro-choice woman to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in both California and the U.S, freely engaged in deficit spending and opposed banning gays from teaching positions.

Like Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama never has to watch his flanks. He can be confident that left-wing ideologues will not desert him as he navigates to campaign and govern from the centre. In contrast, in 1964 Barry Goldwater was a candidate from the right who campaigned on the right with a promise to govern from the right, and in 1972, George McGovern was a man of the left who promised to govern from the left. Both candidates did not just lose the general election but managed to lose in mammoth landslides.

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During the 2012 Republican primaries, Romney was pilloried by conservative candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Even the dreaded ‘R’ word (Rockefeller Republican) was muttered about the former Massachusetts Governor. Initially, Romney was proud of his moderate record in which he supported healthcare reform and gun control. But, sensing the direction of the Republican political wind, he two-stepped to the right on issues like immigration and won the nomination. But, the right-wing never quite trusted him.

In the general election, the victorious candidate in the U.S. is usually the person who can appeal to the political centre and attract voters who are not aligned with either of the two major parties. Alas, poor Governor Romney was never fully embraced by his own Party and had to keep re-assuring Republicans with ever-more extreme partisan positions while the President, confident of the support from left of centre, promised to govern from the centre and handily won the election.

There is one other lesson to be learned from the 2012 election and it is not very nice – there is still bigotry against religious minorities. While President Obama has proven that racial prejudice can be overcome, religious prejudice is still a very real problem. America is a religious country and citizens are interested in the religion of their leaders. Remember how President Obama was first accused of being a Muslim and then was attacked for being a member of a mainline Christian denomination that supposedly had a radical preacher in the President’s local church. But Governor Romney was a member of a true minority – the Mormons.

In the U.S, the Mormons are not just a minority like Jews or Muslims but are viewed more suspiciously because of Christian ambivalence toward the status of Mormons as Christians. Jews and Moslems do not claim to be Christians and present less of an issue to Christian theology. Conservative and Evangelical Christian denominations sometimes maintain that Mormonism is a cult or even a heresy. Did this cost Mitt Romney the election? Who knows? But it did cost him critical votes from the religious right. Keep in mind that Americans do not have to vote and, historically, the religious right had a low voting turnout. The religious vote has only become important when there were Republicans like George W. Bush who appealed to these voters.

Governor Romney did not conceal his membership in the Mormon Church nor should he have done so. But, in critical ‘swing states’ like Ohio and Florida, there is a sizeable Evangelical Christian vote and Romney lost both of these States. His painfully narrow victories in Republican states Virginia and North Carolina offer evidence that his faith was an obstacle. The last member of a religious minority to be elected was the Quaker Richard Nixon. But the Quakers are seen as a traditional Christian denomination and the religious right was not a factor when Nixon was a candidate. Nixon overcame any stigma of pacifism by having volunteered for service in the U.S. Navy during World War II even though he qualified for conscientious objector status. Although he never saw actual combat, Nixon insisted on being stationed in a combat zone and eliminated any potential objections.

So, there are at least two lessons from the 2012 American election: no more moderates and no departure from Christian orthodoxy. While it may not have changed the outcome, maybe Texas Governor Rick Perry or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would have fared better. In any event, these are two men to watch as Americans prepare for 2016.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
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About the Author

Harry Melkonian is a senior lecturer with the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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