By Jacob Weisberg
NEW YORK — What ought to pain Republicans most about Barack Obama’s victory is that 2012 was entirely winnable for them. In European elections over the past few years, voters have thrown out leaders who were in charge during the worst of the financial crisis, whether those leaders deserved the blame or not. Economic indicators in the United States, where an unemployment rate of 8 percent is highly correlated with defeat for the incumbent party, pointed in the same direction. Obama himself had proven a disappointment to many of his former supporters, going from a beloved symbol of generational and social change in 2008 to a detached and remote figure, with limited ability to touch an emotional chord in the electorate.
That Mitt Romney lost nonetheless is in part a tribute to his own weaknesses as a candidate. The Obama campaign put Romney on the defensive early about his work at Bain Capital, and left him there. The Republican nominee made any number of horrendous gaffes. He ran a disastrous GOP convention. He never found a way to talk about himself or his agenda in a way that middle class voters could relate to.
But even a clumsy candidate might have beaten Obama if not for a simple factor that could not be overcome: the GOP’s growing extremism. The Republican strategy of making the election a referendum on the president’s handling of the economy was perfectly sound. The problem was that the Republican Party couldn’t pass the credibility test itself. For many voters disenchanted with Obama, it still was not safe to vote for his opponent.
This failure began with the spectacle of the extended primary season, which was dominated by candidates with views far outside the political mainstream. Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum rejected the separation of church and state. Georgia’s Newt Gingrich challenged the notion of judicial supremacy. Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann claimed the government had been infiltrated by radical Muslims. Donald Trump of New York refused to recognize the validity of Obama’s birth certificate. Rick Perry of Texas wanted to take down more parts of the federal government than he could successfully name. In the debates, the country saw the GOP talking to itself and sounding like a bizarre fringe party, not a responsible governing one.