For Obama, Survival Is the New Winning

The President figured out how to leverage a thumping victory from relative weakness.

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Obama attends a campaign rally in Richmond, Va.

And then the ancient forecast of an October surprise came true, right on schedule, like Halley’s Comet arriving from deep space. The campaigns fretted internally and boasted in public until a storm named Sandy doused the lights and distracted the country.

If a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, then a nation in full campaign mode sees every hurricane as a political football. Having learned well the lessons of Katrina, Obama tore up his travel schedule — Air Force One made a virtual U-turn in Florida — to keep watch from the White House as Sandy shoved a wall of water into New Jersey and New York. The storm diverted attention in the New York–based media and left Romney with little to do but bag relief donations and keep his lip zipped. In Boston, Romney staffers seethed as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the keynote speaker at the GOP convention, praised Obama’s quick response and toured the ruins with the President by his side. According to some exit polls, voters likewise approved of Obama’s storm performance, giving him the boost he needed to seal his win. Sandy “broke Romney’s momentum,” in the words of former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a GOP guru and veteran of the Katrina cleanup.

(PHOTOS: Life in Sandy’s Wake)

Obama’s re-election and the continued split in Congress confirmed a reality that has been forming for a generation: no matter how passionately the true believers in each party make their case, no matter what new technologies arrive to amplify their voices, no matter how high the alps of campaign cash lavished on data mining, hypertargeted ads and voter mobilization become, Americans refuse to give a governing mandate to one side or the other. True, Republicans got control of the government in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency, and the Democrats had their turn when Obama swept into office. Some big things got done, first under the Republicans (tax cuts, a Medicare expansion, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and then under the Democrats (restructuring of the health care and automotive industries, new banking regulations, a jump-start for green energy). But each time, voters yanked on the choke chain.

The U.S. is — for the moment, at least — a two-party system with no-party rule. Seven presidential elections have now gone by without a popular-vote landslide of 55% or more. That hasn’t happened since the late 19th century. Political scientists keep writing books saying a robust majority is on its way, to be gathered by one party or the other. Once again, though, the emerging majority failed to emerge. We’re still waiting.

Will the Fever Be Unbroken?
What comes next for the party warriors depends very much on tribal rituals that began the moment the election results were clear. As the losers, the Republicans now assign blame. As the winners, Democrats wrestle for credit.

Start with the blame game and the easiest gambit of all, which is to blame the candidate. No time was wasted in skewering Romney. “What we got was a weak moderate candidate, handpicked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party,” groused Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots. “The presidential loss is unequivocally on them.” Without a doubt, the former Massachusetts governor made an easy target. While he certainly looked the part of a President, his jaw strong and temples snowy, Romney was perhaps a candidate better seen than heard. He knew what the Obama camp intended to do with its negative ads, yet he seemed determined to help them do it.

“I like being able to fire people,” Romney said at one point. Another time, he said his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.” He was Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod’s unpaid wordsmith, keeping the re-election campaign stocked with zingers — the most lethal of which undoubtedly was from his speech to a group of high rollers on the topic of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax. The “47%,” as he called this near majority, believe they are “victims” and constitute a drag on society. If author Ayn Rand were still alive, Romney might have fluttered her heart with this taxonomy. But the remark surely hurt him with the millions of retirees, troops, students and low-paid workers who rightly feel like contributing citizens. And who, through the many taxes other than income tax that they pay, may kick in a higher percentage of their income than Romney paid of his.

The question for Republicans is whether they’ll go deeper into the blame game than simply scapegoating their nominee. If they are honest with themselves, they will recognize that the party made Romney’s job more rather than less difficult. Beginning with the almost comical anybody-but-Romney spectacle of the GOP primaries, where a parade of has-beens, not-yets and never-weres competed to flank Romney on the right, the party coaxed and prodded its candidate into damaging positions on immigration, abortion, gay rights and more. It wasn’t enough for Romney to stand on a broadly appealing platform of fiscal responsibility and free enterprise. He was expected to somehow compete for Latino votes while denying undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, even members of the military. He was supposed to vie for women’s votes while down-ballot Republicans parsed the meaning of rape. The Tea Party movement can be credited with electrifying a body that flatlined after 2008, but what rose from the slab this year was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, a toxic patchwork of once buried ideas.

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