'I come not to debate GOP conservatives, but to diagnose them'

Paul Wells explains why this election will be dead easy for conservative Republicans to rationalize

This was always going to be a close election. It’s hard to imagine a U.S. presidential election that wouldn’t be close. They used to have decisive victories — Johnson in 1964 and Nixon in 1972 both won with more than 60 per cent of the popular vote — but those days seem long gone now.

Barack Obama won despite 8 per cent unemployment by fielding a superb campaign operation, staging a vastly superior nominating convention and bouncing back after a dreadful first debate performance. More than that, his position on issues held more of the fractured American electorate than Romney’s did. Obamacare turned out to be more asset than handicap. Obama’s stewardship of the economy neutralized Romney’s business-guy advantage. Democrats held approximately as many House and Senate seats as before the election. Equal-marriage ballot initiatives seem at this hour to have carried in Maryland, Minnesota, Washington and Maine. Voters in Washington and Colorado supported the decriminalization of marijuana. Republicans tempted to congratulate themselves for winning the white vote should be told, gently, that on top of being a distasteful way to apportion legitimacy in a democracy, the analysis is radically unhelpful: the white share of the electorate has fallen 15 points since 1980. Jacques Parizeau is a poor role model for Republicans who actually want to win something.

But this election will be dead easy for conservative Republicans to rationalize. Earlier tonight I assumed they would hide behind Hurricane Sandy for a few days before shifting to the real target, Mitt Romney, who would be adjudged too moderate to have any traction. It turns out Sandy’s services won’t be needed. Before midnight GOP commentators were already writing Romney off as a Massachussetts wet whose post-convention “Etch-a-Sketch” shift to the centre erased anything he could have used to gain traction against Obama. In 2016 Paul Ryan or somebody like him will head the ticket instead of decorating its undercard. Republicans can be Republicans again. It will be a cinch.

And if a candidate can run well to the right of the Romney/Ryan ’12 ticket and close the voter gaps that killed it among Hispanic, female and younger voters, then it’ll work a charm. If not, not. I’m surprised to see Canadian Conservatives who have worked for Stephen Harper tempted by this argument. Harper has grown his advantage since 2006 through aggressive, methodical outreach to minority and immigrant populations. He has passed nothing resembling the income-tax cuts, favouring the most well-off voters, that Ryan championed (although Harper’s margin of manoeuvre benefited from the way he inherited a strong fisc from his predecessors, as Obama didn’t, Romney/Ryan wouldn’t have, and the GOP’s ’16 nominee probably won’t).

But no matter. I come not to debate the GOP conservatives, but to diagnose them. A few apostate Republicans — David Frum, maybe Ross Douthat — will hope for a chastened GOP eager to radically rethink its tenets. They’re already out of luck.