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Susan Estrich: If Republicans Ever Want to Win Again, They Have to Change Their Ways

Now that the election is over, and President Barack Obama has returned to Washington to try to turn all the rhetoric about working together into something real, Republicans and talking heads (especially the conservative ones whose predictions seemed to be based entirely on wishful thinking and perhaps the desire for some last-minute fundraising) are obsessing about how Mitt Romney managed to lose this election.

They are criticizing everything from his campaign to his pedigree. If only the campaign had been better (How exactly was it supposed to have been better?) or the candidate a little poorer (Most presidents are rich. Who else could afford the luxury of putting their lives and incomes on hold, as so many do?), then the result might have been different. If only the media hadn’t sat on stories about the mistakes made in Libya (Was anyone in this election voting based on Libya?), if only Super-Storm Sandy had come a week earlier or 10 days later (Is God really a Democrat?), things might have been different.

Maybe the problem is the Republican Party, and not Romney or the media or Mother Nature. Maybe the problem is that a party that demonizes immigrants as if this were still 1980, that turns off women and gays and lesbians and their families because of its positions on social issues (choice, gays, even contraception, even rape) cannot put together a solid majority in a changing America, a problem that will get worse over time, not better. Maybe the problem is that the nominating process forces electable candidates (the Massachusetts Romney) into unelectable flip-floppers. Maybe the problem, certainly at the Senate level, is a stunning lack of pragmatism that leads to the nomination of candidates who can be beaten instead of those who can’t lose (hello, Richard Lugar).

And maybe it’s not just that Romney lost, but that Obama managed to win.

He won despite the highest unemployment figures for a re-elected incumbent since FDR. He won despite the fact that Obamacare remains a source of grave concern for the majority of Americans. He won despite the fact that we are facing a fiscal cliff. He won despite a terrible first debate and despite the horrifying murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. He won despite the fact that after the initial flush of bipartisan responsiveness in the wake of Sandy, my friends in the hard-hit areas are now (with great frustration) waiting for the locust to hit next.

How?

Three reasons I think.

The obvious one: Things are getting better. Slowly, painfully slowly, the economy is coming back. Unemployment finally fell below 8 percent; in Ohio, it is 7 percent. If Obama was responsible for the recession (a mostly questionable proposition, but one that Republicans insisted on), then he must also be responsible for the recovery.

The almost forgotten one: Obama, when he turns it on, is a great candidate. For all the differences between 2008 and 2012, watching his speech on Election Night, watching the reaction of the crowd, I could not help but believe that “yes, we can.” Friends who saw him at rallies across the country say they left believing we should not give up hope. This is, after all, the man who beat Hillary Clinton when he was a first-term senator, with a checkered past, running in a country that has only rarely elected black senators, much less presidents.

And the reason that has nothing to do with the economy or even with Obama himself: Democrats have grown up.

I lived through the 1980s. I lived through them in the suites where the bad returns came in and the concession calls had to be made. Losing stinks all around.

After 1988, Democrats made changes. They nominated a candidate who could win, not only because of his personal charisma, but also because he didn’t have to flip-flop in the primaries to do it. They matched the Republicans in money and negativity and out-and-out hardball. These changes might not have been good for politics, but they were good for winning.

Ultimately, Democrats united behind an imperfect president who had disappointed many of them, and we decided to go out and vote for him and work for him anyway.

Republicans, when they stop blaming each other and the media, might actually learn from that. After all, it’s something many of us learned from them not so long ago.

— Bestselling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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