The Republican who might have beaten Obama

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Blake Zeff

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Here are some of the reasons Republicans are coming up with to explain their awful performance in the election: they weren’t conservative enough, Chris Christie and Sandy stopped Mitt Romney from blowing past Barack Obama, the country has gone to hell and everyone wants free stuff.

And of course there's this: Romney was a terrible candidate.

None of this reckons with the things that worked so well for the G.O.P. in the past that are now obsolete.

Appeals to homophobia used to drive turnout and win national elections. Now the issue of gay rights is a net positive for Democrats, as far more young people of either party support marriage equality.

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Immigrant-bashing worked well in previous decades, but lo and behold, Hispanics made up 10 percent of the electorate on Tuesday, and Obama won the group by 44 points.

Opposing equal-pay mandates, trying to defund Planned Parenthood, and talking cavalierly about rape wasn't always a sure-fire way to repel female voters before, but it seems to be now: Obama won among them by 12 percent.

You get the point. There's not enough angry white guys to sustain what amounts to a strict demographic appeal to that group.

But Obama and the Democrats weren't unbeatable, or even close to it. The economy isn't exactly humming, and far more than half of the electorate felt that the country was on the wrong track. Exactly half approved of the president’s job performance. So there was room for the Republicans to succeed.

Supposing that, instead of a candidate who bowed to the current conservative orthodoxy, the Republicans selected a different kind of nominee. 

This candidate (we'll call him Good Candidate) is not a fanatic on so-called social issues and essentially hews to the libertarian position on abortion and gay marriage. He’s not a liberal crusader in these areas, but he’s tolerant.

Good Candidate is a governor, so not only are his rhetoric and agenda non-threatening, but he has no voting record that the Democrats can exploit on these kinds of issues.

Good Candidate is not exactly a renowned environmentalist and he strongly supports lightly regulating business so, by his reasoning, the economy can thrive. But he doesn’t deny science, either, believing that global warming is something we should at least look into. It doesn’t make him less of a Republican, but it makes him harder to caricature as a denialist.

Good Candidate is not driven to be president based on any of the above issues, like, say, a Rick Santorum was. He simply wants to guide America to prosperity. Before Good Candidate got into politics, in fact, he spent some time in business, where he prided himself as a technocrat who honed data-driven methods to maximize results. His message to voters is that his business faced growing pains many times, and he has the experience, confidence, and know-how to get major enterprises back on the right course. He believes he can do that for the U.S. economy, too.

Good Candidate doesn't oppose Obamacare, because, as a fiscal conservative, he understands that soaring health care costs are handcuffing the nation, and he believes that we cannot leave our most vulnerable to die without basic preventative, medical care. As a personal-responsibility and free-market kind of guy, he likes the ideas of the individual mandate and a market-based solution.

A reasonable, experienced governor who neutralizes the so-called values questions and makes a credible-sounding claim to know how to run things. This imaginary person sounds like a pretty formidable candidate, right?

The irony is that the Republicans nominated someone who wanted to be this very guy. It’s more or less who he once was. But he couldn’t stay that way and still survive the G.O.P. primary process, and he knew it.

So he transformed himself into something many general-election voters found weird and scary, and who had very little chance of beating a president who most Americans still like.

Here is where the self-examination ought to begin.

Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.