The post-mortem: The GOP sacrificed its core message & lost.
After the longest and most expensive election cycle in American history, we are right back where we started. President Barack Obama has been re-elected by a narrow margin (even more narrow than his 2008 victory over John McCain), Democrats will continue to control the U.S. Senate (although holding fewer than the magic 60 votes needed to move legislation) and the GOP has maintained, even increased, its hold on the House of Representatives.
Voters have opted to gridlock the federal government. Given Obama's razor-thin 2.5 million-vote win in the popular count and the GOP's failure to capture control of the Senate, Congress will continue to be polarized and paralyzed.
Thus, in the coming weeks as the nation faces a series of critical fiscal tests, including raising the debt ceiling, dealing with the expiration of Bush-era tax rates and needing to enact a 2012-13 budget, the national government will be deeply divided.
In the wake of Mitt Romney's defeat, pressure will be on Republicans to cave and compromise. They should not. This election was not a repudiation of conservative economics. If anything, it was a continuation of the deep, even division among the American electorate that was ushered in at the beginning of this century when the 2000 presidential race ended up essentially tied.
The re-election of President George W. Bush hinged on a few thousand votes in Ohio, the movement of fewer than a half-million votes in a few key states powered Barack Obama's victory in 2008 and fewer than 100,000 votes in three or four key states decided Tuesday's election.
Thus voters have been remarkably consistent over the past four presidential elections. The big swings have come in the composition of Congress, with Democrats affecting wave elections in 2006 and 2008 and the GOP staging a historic resurgence in 2010.
This year voters appeared to have sated their appetite for legislative change and embraced the status quo.
The 2012 election was not an electoral repudiation of either party. Rather it served as validation of each. In short, there is no consensus among the electorate on a way forward. Under those circumstances we should not expect our elected officials in Washington to arrive at one.
Republicans were put in office by their voters to rein in government spending and reduce the federal deficit. Democrats embraced a tax-and-spend approach and have been rewarded by their constituents. It is unlikely either side is going to back down because to do so would be to alienate the very voters who sent them to Washington in the first place.
In the days and weeks ahead, the failure of the GOP to capture the White House amidst dire and deteriorating economic circumstances will be the subject of much discussion, debate and finger-pointing.
But Republicans should resist the urge to be swayed by denizens of the left who will claim the party's historic conservative economic principles caused that failure. They did not. Mitt Romney was never a disciple of the right and his rejection at the polls was not a rejection of conservative principles.
In fact, perhaps the time has finally come for the national GOP to realize that nominating moderates for president simply does not work.
Despite the fact he performed admirably throughout the campaign, Mitt Romney was never an effective spokesman for the conservative wing of the party. And aside from a pivot to the right in the early primaries, he did not try to be.
Romney was nominated in an effort to appeal to independents and to moderate voters. In the process, the GOP did not develop the bold, sharp contrast needed to convince the broad electorate to fire a failed president.
It's the fourth time in recent decades this strategy has failed: George H.W. Bush in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008 and now Mitt Romney in 2012 all fit the moderate mold. All lost. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush flew the conservative flag and won.
With Barack Obama, the Democrats were not afraid to embrace their party's left-wing ideology. They won because they stood for something, just like Reagan and George W. Bush did in achieving their victories. The GOP sacrificed its core message and lost.
And so, here we are back where we began. Hopefully — finally — some lessons will be learned. As we move forward, Republicans in Congress must embrace the GOP's core ideology, start drawing those bright lines of distinction and put together a strategy for effectively communicating it to the American people.
Lowman S. Henry is chairman and CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.