Paul Begala: How the GOP Helped Obama Win

Given economic realities, Obama’s victory is an astonishing accomplishment. Jason Reed / Reuters-Landov

At his final rally, Barack Obama stood before 20,000 adoring Iowans, just yards from the Des Moines headquarters where his 2008 Children’s Crusade began. Something happened. Something we have rarely seen: Obama wept. A few elegant tears slowly descended from his left eye, perhaps in appreciation of the ­enormity—and the ­improbability—of what he was about to accomplish. Within 24 hours those tears had turned into dancing. The reelected president was more exuberant, more ­ideal­is­tic, even, than the sober, somber young ­president-elect of Grant Park 2008. And for good reason.

The economic current against President Obama this year was more like a typhoon than a tide. To put it into perspective, from Truman-era 1948 to Bush-era 2008, America experienced a total of 39 months during which the unemployment rate sat at or over 8 percent. In the 46 months that Barack Obama has been president, we have had 43 months over 8 percent. Median household income for the middle class has dropped by almost $5,000 since 2000. And median net worth—the total wealth of a middle-class family—dropped by a staggering 40 percent between 2007 and 2010.

Given those economic realities, it is amazing that Obama wasn’t impeached. The fact that he has been reelected is the surest sign that his parents gave him the right name: “Barack,” which means “blessed.”

How did he do it? Let me count the ways.

The Republicans Helped Him. The strongest ­Republicans—Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, John Thune, Haley Barbour—all took a pass this time. And so Americans looking to replace the president were treated to a clown-car primary in which a new leader emerged every week—each crazier than the last. Romney was the strongest candidate in a weak field, but that’s a dubious honor—kind of like ­being ­voted the sexiest member of the Supreme Court.

Romney dispatched each rival by outspending him or her by many millions, and by outflanking them on the far right. Let me tell you, when you’re attacking Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum from the right, you are out there. Romney could have run as a moderate. He could have accepted the Bowles-Simpson call for the rich to pay slightly more in taxes. Or opposed 30-round ammo clips for assault weapons. Or stuck with any of his ­multiple-choice positions on abortion or gay rights. Instead he ran to the right of George W. Bush, abandoning his support for Bush’s sensible comprehensive immigration reform and shamefully attacking Gingrich and Rick Perry for daring to treat undocumented immigrants as human beings.

Romney made a brazen effort to move to the middle in the final weeks of the campaign and it almost worked. If he had run consistently as a Massachusetts moderate, willing to challenge the outdated orthodoxy of the far right, he might be president-elect today.

Fibbing Fails. In his first ad, Mitt Romney quoted Barack Obama saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” But that was Obama quoting a GOP aide four years ago. The full quote is: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’” From that deceitful ad to his last, disgraceful falsehood that Jeep was transferring production to ­China, Romney ran a stunningly dishonest campaign. But the leader of the Party of Lincoln should have known you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Romney’s Jeep ad backfired, and Obama’s support among union members in Ohio—the kind of folks who build those Jeeps in Toledo—far surpassed his 2008 support. Romney may as well have run ads that said, “I think you’re stupid,” because that’s the message voters got.

Conventions Are Still Consequential. Every four years we hear the gripe that conventions don’t matter. Baloney. No, there are no smoke-filled rooms in which grizzled pols horse-trade over who the nominee will be: the nominees are chosen by voters. But just because conventions are no longer deliberative does not mean they are no longer consequential. A convention is like a wedding; the conclusion is foreordained, but how it’s pulled off matters. The Republicans had a mediocre convention, which, like a mediocre wedding, doesn’t mean you’re doomed. But it’s a bad sign when your old Uncle Clint steals the microphone for the toast and winds up arguing with an empty chair.

Mitt could have run ads saying, "I think you're stupid." because that was the message.

The Democrats, on the other hand, gave Elvis the microphone. The years melted away and soon he was hotter than a two-dollar pistol, and the nation cheered like teenagers at The Ed Sullivan Show. Although one wag actually opined that Clinton may have cost Obama the election by counseling against hitting Romney for flip-flopping (which research showed actually helped Mitt with moderate women who were hoping he’d flop back their way on abortion rights), anyone with a brain knew that Clinton was still magic. In the first minutes after Clinton’s speech, my Republican friend and CNN colleague Alex Castellanos said, “This will be the moment that probably reelected Barack Obama. Bill Clinton saved the Democratic Party once, it was going too far left, he came in, the New Democrats took it to the center. He did it again tonight.”

Powered by Clinton, as well as a Michelle Obama speech that was one of the best speeches I have ever seen, an emotional Joe Biden, and a workmanlike President Obama, the Democrats surged to a solid lead after their convention, blowing open a dead-heat race and threatening to walk away with it.

One Debate Can Change Everything. I must confess I did not anticipate the power of the debates. Debates, I said with certainty, are confirming events; they generally solidify the race where it is. Wrong: 67.2 million people saw Mitt Romney turn in a truly impressive performance in the first debate. He was calm and in command as he ticked off his five-point economic plan, while Obama was dismissive, distracted, and disgusted. Romney’s performance single-handedly turned the tide, reversing all the gains the Democrats had made in Charlotte. In the second and third debates the president came to play, hitting Romney mercilessly and wittily. Romney didn’t have a second act, and Obama was able to stop Romney’s momentum. So the race returned to status quo ante: the Dems made their run, the GOP made theirs, and we went back to a narrow but stable Obama lead for the rest of the race.

Go Ugly Early. My father likes to say, “You’re always the hero of your own story,” and that is most certainly true of me. While I was on leave from the pages of Newsweek I was busy raising money and raising hell as a consultant to Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama super PAC. Founded by two former Obama White House aides, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, Priorities decided to take a page from the far right and turn Romney’s greatest strength into his greatest weakness. They did not waste money attacking Romney as a flip-flopper or a “severe conservative.” Instead, Burton and Sweeney never wavered in their strategic vision. They had one hill to take: Mount Bain, and they took it by storm. Stymied by a Democratic establishment that abhors big money, undermined by unnamed Chicago operatives who branded the PAC “an abysmal f--king failure,” the two young stars persevered.

Our goal was to take Romney’s greatest strength—his business record—and make it a weakness. We were given a road map by none other than the late, great Ted Kennedy. As the 2008 election was approaching, I paid the senator a visit. I thought Romney might be the GOP nominee, and Kennedy gave me a tutorial on how to beat him. Don’t underestimate Romney, Kennedy said. He’s smart and resourceful and will say anything, take any position. Kennedy recounted how his campaign team tracked down employees of companies that had been shut down after being bought by Bain Capital. Shamelessly copying Kennedy’s plan, we interviewed dozens of laid-off ­middle-class working people. Their stories were emblematic of the collapse of the middle class: factories closed, health benefits canceled, lives ruined.

My old friend, former Georgia governor and senator Zell Miller, taught me that “a hit dog barks,” but Romney remained silent. I am still amazed that Romney did not respond. He allowed our little, underfunded super PAC to define him as Gordon Gekko. Without his business record, Romney was left with nothing but his charm.

Government Really Is the Solution. Hurricane Sandy decimated two precious right-wing myths: that Barack Obama is an intractable partisan and that government, as Ronald Reagan said, “is not the solution. Government is the problem.” The sight of President Obama working arm in arm with the Republican governor of New Jersey weeks after Governor Christie hammered him as the GOP keynoter showed both men to be pragmatic problem solvers.

Amazingly, in our antigovernment time, nearly three out of four Americans thought their federal government did a good job after Sandy. It’s all well and good to blather about drowning the federal government in the bathtub, but when you’re actually drowning, you look to FEMA—not BP or Halliburton—to lend a hand.

Maybe, just maybe, that spirit can live on, and Americans of good will from both parties can come together to attack problems instead of each other.