The realities of the 2012 presidential campaign season: 23 million unemployed or underemployed Americans, soaring gas prices, mounting debt, a controversial national health care law about to take effect, unrest overseas, and a fiscal cliff looming.
Historical precedent — since FDR, no president has been reelected with unemployment hovering around or above 8 percent — and polling showing most people felt the country was on the wrong track pointed to a "change election cycle" and a resounding Mitt Romney victory.
So why didn't it happen?
First, Mr. Romney's biggest strength proved to be his biggest weakness: his chameleon-like ability to adapt to different political landscapes.
Mr. Romney ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994 as a liberal-leaning, pro-choice Republican. He then ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 as an avowed moderate. In 2008, he ran in the GOP presidential primaries as a conservative alternative to Sen. John McCain. In 2012, he ran for president again — this time as the Republican establishment's sanctioned candidate — as a philosophical hybrid of his earlier personas.
Mr. Romney's seeming malleability proved to be a very successful strategy. He became governor of a left-of-center state, and the presidential nominee of a right-of-center party. And it gave him an aura of non-ideological pragmatism that often frustrated the left's attempts to portray him as the GOP's latest right-wing bogeyman.
But it also contributed to one of Mr. Romney's biggest problems: a difficulty in connecting with voters. Mr. Romney's adaptability often left the public struggling to grasp what he stood for and where his ideological compass was.
This explains the dynamic on display during the GOP presidential primary. Mr. Romney, the default frontrunner by virtue of his 2008 runner-up showing, campaigned with near-universal establishment support against a field of second-tier candidates. Yet a significant bloc of primary voters continually elevated one flawed alternative after another — first restaurant executive Herman Cain, then fallen House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and finally defeated Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — because they doubted Mr. Romney's conservatism, if not his authenticity.
In other words, Mr. Romney was forced to run hard to capture a nomination he already could not lose.
After Mr. Romney captured the GOP nomination, the Obama campaign exploited these doubts by pushing a "Mitt is a bad guy" strategy, emphasizing Mr. Romney's refusal to release his tax returns, his record at Bain Capital, the "47 percent" videotape, and other distractions which — for a time, at least — kept Mr. Romney off-balance and on defense.
Second, Mr. Romney's messaging challenges, specifically a penchant for roundabout communication in the pursuit of a valid argument, caused frequent problems for his campaign.
At one point, Mr. Romney infamously said, "I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor; we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich; they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 to 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling."
Clearly, Mr. Romney could have expressed concern for Americans in the middle without saying he was "not concerned" about poor people, a phrase Democrats cherry-picked out of the statement to reinforce the perception he was an out-of-touch plutocrat. Similarly, Mr. Romney could have avoided the whole silly "binders full of women" controversy by simply, and correctly, stating that recruiting qualified women and putting them in positions of authority was a priority for him as governor of Massachusetts.
Mr. Romney's defeat can be attributed to a number of factors, including the relative difficulty of defeating even a weak incumbent president, the polarized nature of the electorate, the superiority of President Barack Obama's ground game in battleground states, and the president's aggressive message machine, which defined Mr. Romney before he had a chance to define himself.
But because of Mr. Romney's self-inflicted communication misfires, and his reputation for agnostic pragmatism, the campaign often found itself in reactive mode. In politics, when you're explaining, you're losing. This compromised his ability to make Mr. Obama's economic record the centerpiece of the campaign, and to push the clear and consistent change message essential to winning.
Though the circumstances seemed to favor a 1980-style, repudiate-the-incumbent scenario, the election turned out as a basic repeat of 2004: a mediocre president defeating an underwhelming challenger from Massachusetts.
So, despite both parties spending $2 billion, the country is right back where it all started: divided, suffering from economic malaise, headed toward a fiscal cliff, and still dominated by the same leaders in the White House and Congress.
Never before in American history has a change election cycle so vigorously reaffirmed the status quo.
Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore resident, is a Republican former Capitol Hill press secretary, communications director and gubernatorial speechwriter. He blogs at rjc-crosspurposes.blogspot.com. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun