The first few weeks after a losing presidential election are an awkward period for the most devoted ideological polemicist. Months of optimistic spin about your candidate must be cast aside for an entirely different sort of spin — where before the candidate was a budding juggernaut boldly carrying the party banner onward to victory, now we can see in hindsight that he was a hapless loser unable to articulate our side’s clearly winning vision. Transitioning from one line to another can often take months of careful tip-toeing. Commentary editor John Podhoretz offers up a magisterial postelection essay, “The Way Forward,” that instead simply takes the full plunge all at once.
The postelection Podhoretz argues that Obama’s win was “an astonishing technical accomplishment but in no way whatsoever a substantive one.” He owes it all to the brilliance of his campaign strategists — “a peerless political instrument, a virtual machine.” Obama’s assault on Romney business career may have “been the smartest and most effective political campaign of our lifetime.”
This may be a jarring message for Podhoretz’s devoted readers, whom Podhoretz spent months assuring that Obama was flailing about and headed for near-certain defeat. Obama was politically incompetent (“what we’ve seen so far is a reminder that the skills required to mount an insurgent campaign with a charismatic unknown aren’t those needed to mount a re-election effort featuring an incumbent with a problematic record"). On top of this he was weighed down by a terrible economy. Romney was in much better condition than the polls showed, Obama in deep, deep trouble. “Without a stark turnaround in his fortunes,” observed Podhoretz, he might lose [North Carolina] by 10 points this November.”
Romney was the candidate running a brilliant campaign. To the preelection Podhoretz, it was obvious that the ads attacking Romney’s biography would fail. (“Obama team must know that they can’t prevail solely with a negative assault on Mitt Romney.”) Obama’s campaign was in the midst of a “smoke screen of self-delusion,” pathetically unaware of their own coming demise:
Because they don’t only sell the snake oil, they drink it themselves. They buy their own propaganda; they believe the hype.
The astonishing turnabout in the evaluation of Obama’s campaign, from delusional nincompoops to the most terrifyingly efficient campaign apparatus in history, helps Podhoretz reach his desired conclusion, that Obama’s victory owed nothing at all to his policy platform. Obama’s campaign, he tells us now, was “bereft of ideas” and offered “no second-term governing agenda whatsoever.”
The preelection Podhoretz believed that Romney was offering just the right level of detail to the voters:
... the “Romney isn’t being substantive enough” crowd is wrong if its members think the strategy of staying relatively vague is a losing one. Successful politicians have to allow less ideological voters some room to project their own best hope for the future onto the person they’re thinking of voting for.
The postelection Podhoretz now sees that Romney’s singular error was his failure to offer enough specifics:
The contentlessness of the Romney campaign was a vacuity of the center-right …Thus did the flight from content create a fatal problem for Romney. He may have thought his lack of specificity would lend him more appeal, but in the end, it made him less appealing because he offered nothing but words.
The preelection Podhoretz was perfectly willing to credit any potential Obama victory, however unlikely, to his policy agenda:
if he loses on Nov. 6, he will lose for the same reason he would have won — because of his very real, very substantial, and very consequential achievements.
The postelection Podhoretz asserts that Obama’s win was “an astonishing technical accomplishment but in no way whatsoever a substantive one.” In no way whatsoever. Onward to victory in 2016, comrades!