Republicans are mystified that in a nation they know as fundamentally conservative, a president they regard as deeply radical has been re-elected. But Americans didn’t vote for Barack Obama because they are liberal. They voted for him because they are conservative.
Not conservative as defined by modern Republicans but as defined by the dictionary: “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.”
This election changed as little as possible. The presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate stayed in the same hands as before. Gridlock and stalemate were given a new lease. Americans may claim to be sick of the spectacle in Washington, but they signed up for another four years of the same.
It’s not what you would have expected if you took the pronouncements of the candidates at face value. They were all about ambitious transformation.
“This is a big day for big change,” said Mitt Romney on Election Day. It was an echo of what Obama said four years ago and what the president said Monday night at a rally in Des Moines: “This is where our movement for change began.”
Has any candidate ever been elected president promising to block change? To keep things just the way they are? To leave every stone unturned? Not that I can recall. It would be like a cereal box with the message: old and unimproved.
Americans demand progress, and they expect their leaders to bring it about. As Ronald Reagan knew, a candidate can never go wrong quoting the revolutionary pamphleteer Tom Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Romney’s defeat, however, should confirm that this desire for change is less than it’s cracked up to be. Voters may say they want forward-looking reforms, but they consistently vote for keeping the status quo or reverting to the past.
Since 1980, only one president running for re-election has lost. That was George H.W. Bush — who went along with a major change he had opposed in promising “no new taxes.” In every other case, even in the middle of the Iraq debacle, voters have chosen the devil they know over the devil they don’t.
They had the same basic preservationist impulse even in 2008, when “change we can believe in” was the Obama mantra. His opponent, John McCain, offered himself as a daring maverick with no tolerance for standing pat.
In fact, they were both selling nostalgia. Obama hearkened back to the peace, prosperity and fiscal balance the nation enjoyed before George W. Bush. McCain ceaselessly evoked the Reagan era.
Our aversion to doing anything truly different is often a source of trouble. We are attached to long-established tax and spending priorities that have created a huge gap between income and outgo. We preserve entitlements built on the thinking of the 1930s and 1960s. We insist on keeping military commitments we made half a century ago, oblivious to new circumstances.
Obama deferred to our conservative inclination when he rolled out the best advocate for his retention: Bill Clinton. The implicit message was that Obama could restore the Eden we inhabited in the 1990s. Clinton, of course, was ferociously controversial in office, but his approval rating is now 69 percent — higher than it ever was during his presidency.
Romney spent the latter part of the race minimizing his differences with Obama. He said he would repeal Obamacare — except, you know, all the appealing parts. He faulted the president’s Iran policy but couldn’t really explain how his would be different. He was moderate with an M, as in mushy.
He did pick a running mate who seemed willing to shake things up. Paul Ryan has a budget plan that would downsize the federal government and overhaul Medicare. But Ryan was not allowed to barnstorm the country on behalf of that plan. He spent his time talking about the need to restore the economy to the way it used to be.
Even the tea party hero was keen on reassuring those worried that he would turn things upside down. When it came to seniors who cherish Medicare as it is, Ryan always stressed, “What we’re saying is no changes for anybody 55 and above.”
Most Americans didn’t vote for Ryan. They did, however, vote in favor of no changes for anyone 55 and above — or anyone under.
Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.