The next morning after an Election Day defeat, there is no place I know more empty than the headquarters of the losing candidate.
Long gone are the bunting, balloons, the band, the open bar — and the hopes — of the night before. If the phone does ring, chances are it’s a creditor looking for a check. Campaign workers, now jobless and speaking softly, almost as though there’s been a death in the family, are busy updating, embellishing and printing their résumés.
In a hundred different places, members of the losing candidate’s party are doing their own individual postmortems of the defeat. And miraculously, those party folks invariably somehow all reach the same conclusion. The identical reaction is happening again in the wake of Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s loss to Democratic President Barack Obama.
Because a political party is a human institution, and because most of us humans will go to great lengths to avoid rejection, the first stage for explaining the defeat is to look outside of ourselves and to Blame the Losing Candidate.
This time, it was, of course, Romney’s fault. He was, we are told, too stiff, unnatural, emotionally distant and uninspiring. Just like four years ago, it had been John McCain’s fault (that risky VP pick, remember?). And before that, John Kerry’s Nantucket windsurfing had distanced him from ordinary voters, while Al Gore had earlier been so relentlessly unexciting that his Secret Service code name had been “Al Gore.”
After all the personality and character defects of the rejected standard-bearer have been stipulated, those on the losing side move directly to the most dangerous spot on the political compass, which I call Find the Gimmick. This is the search for an external factor to explain the party’s defeats.
When Franklin Roosevelt won the White House four times, Republicans conveniently discovered the reason: Roosevelt’s magical fireside chats to the nation. If the GOP could just find someone as good on radio as FDR, they would be back on top.
And how did losing Democrats explain Ronald Reagan’s back-to-back landslides? “He’s terrific on TV” — as though the answer to the party’s problems would have been to put together a ticket of Steve Carell and Judge Judy. Other gimmicks the winning side has apparently taken advantage of include mastery of the Internet, social networking, data mining and cell phones.
The most dangerous point of all on the political compass is the stage I call Blame the Customer. It wasn’t our party’s record or platform or hypocrisy the electorate might have objected to. No, the whole problem turns out to be the voters, themselves.
Deliberately overlooked in this rationalization of defeat is the fact that just a short while ago, when our side was winning elections, we celebrated these same voters for being so thoughtful, mature, patriotic and wise. But now when they prefer the candidate of the other party, we brand them selfish, mean-spirited, easily duped and lazy.
Recently sited at this stage was Rush Limbaugh, who said after the 2012 election, “In a country of children, where the option is either Santa Claus or work ... it’s tough to beat Santa Claus.”
The principal drawback to the Blame the Customer theory is that we really only have two political parties in this country. If you’re going to accuse a majority of the voters of being either ethical jellyfish or moral pariahs, you’re probably not going to win their support on a regular basis.
The final stage is Get Me a Winner! I no longer want to quibble about trivial issues differences. I’m just tired of losing. (This is how the GOP settled on Ike after 20 years in the wilderness and why Democrats are still smitten with Bill Clinton.) Can this candidate win back the White House? Good. Where do I sign up? How should I make out the check?
These, believe me, are the predictable stages following the agony of defeat.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.