Mitt Romney has chalked up the Democrats' big win in 2012 — which would have been even bigger without favorable redistricting — to "gifts" that the party promised to various groups. Groups like young people, women, and people of color. "Gifts" like health care, contraception coverage, insurance coverage, immigration reform, and college loan reform.
Not only does this disclosure, made Wednesday on a call to donors, show that Mitt Romney has a shocking misunderstanding of how the U.S. government works — such "gifts" are actually policies either paid for by taxpayers or products that people themselves have decided to purchase, as in the case of contraception, through their choice of health insurance provider — it shows that he doesn't really understand free markets, either.
While there was a lot of talk ahead of this election about the vast sums of money spent by both sides on attack ads and voter turnout (or suppression), the big story post-election has been that money did not actually buy victory. As in a free market, where people vote with their dollars, in this election, people voted with their actual votes (crazy!).
So the problem is not that Obama and the Democrats unfairly wooed voters with "gifts." The problem — for the Republicans and for Mitt Romney — is that they offered policies that voters and taxpayers wanted, and were willing to pay for. In a representative democracy, where people elect their own leaders and where the federal and state governments are supported by taxes from that electorate, this is hardly underhanded. In fact, it's the goal.
To see how obviously wrongheaded Romney's comments are, imagine, for a moment, that we're not talking about rival politics, but about rival businesses. Imagine that Main Street cuts a swath right through the middle of Small Town, USA. On the right is Red-Mart, while across the street, on the left, is Blue-Mart. The stores are rivals; each has about 50% of market share most of the time. But recently, Blue-Mart pulled ahead, and Red-Mart watched its margins decline. According to the Small Town Herald, this is mostly because town demographics are changing, and young people, minorities, and women (among others) prefer the products offered by Blue-Mart. Also, Blue-Mart recently invested in a comprehensive customer database that lets them contact their customers based on previous shopping history. Blue-Mart's CEO and sales reps also seem to have a decent knack for connecting with customers.
Across the street at Red-Mart, it's a different story. Red-Mart's shelves are stocked with things that some townspeople want a lot; but a lot of townspeople don't want at all. Red-Mart's CEO isn't as personable as Blue-Mart's, and his customer database is prone to crashing. Plus, it seems that some of Red-Mart's reps developed an unfortunate habit of saying really horrible things to customers on the topic of rape.
And yet, even as their margins erode, Red-Mart — the Republican Party — can't figure out how to turn the situation around. Most Red-Mart employees seem to be insisting they just have a marketing problem; they say the products on the shelves don't need to change, as long as they can change the store's messaging. A few insist that they just have a talent development problem; if they get reps who look more like the townspeople, or who are better salesmen, or who can stop themselves from talking about rape, people will come back to the store. And a very, very few say no, they've got a product problem; they need to change the substance of what's on their shelves.
You'd think a businessperson like Romney would be able to say, "The customer base is changing, therefore our strategy needs to change." Or he'd look across key inflection points of the campaign and identify, with the benefit of hindsight, where he went wrong tactically (for instance, perhaps in choosing Paul Ryan instead of Rob Portman). If this were a business, I'd like to think Romney would conduct a more holistic review. Yes, victory in business and in politics is hard, and complicated. But I can guarantee you this: if your reaction to declining market share is either "What's wrong with our customers?" or "The competition's not fair!" you won't last long.
Unfortunately, instead of the sort of cogent analysis we might expect from, say, Bain, Romney just says Obama used the "old playbook" of promising handouts to interest groups. What's sad is that Romney sees the bulk of the country — the bulk of his customer base — as an interest group. And what's doubly sad is that he can't see it's not Obama's playbook that's old.