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Opinion

It's never the economy, stupid

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Opinion,Op-Eds

It was a colossal blunder for Mitt Romney to tie his fortunes to the economy in the 2012 election. Just as a lawyer should never ask a question to which he doesn't know the answer, a candidate should never hitch his wagon to something over which he has no control.

Suppose consumer confidence rises? Suppose the unemployment figures drop below 8 percent? Suppose home prices turn around, construction increases and foreclosures drop? Suppose buying and selling all pick up? If such things happen -- as they did -- you've lost your core argument.

Even beyond that, is it really the economy at all? If people vote their pocketbook, why does poor West Virginia consistently vote Republican and wealthy Connecticut vote Democratic?

If people vote their economic interests, why did so many of the most well-off spend large parts of their fortunes to elect a person so contrary to their interests? For that matter, how did FDR get re-elected in 1936 after presiding over the deepening of the Great Depression? And why did Bill Clinton, for whose campaign James Carville coined the "economy stupid" phrase in 1992, garner only 43 percent of the vote that year?

Could it be that Americans have higher aims when they vote than simply worries about their own personal financial condition?

Other than a Republican Party that seems to live by slogans (in this case, a Democratic slogan), few people still give credence to the centrality of economics in politics. There are old-fashioned Marxists, who have always preached that material interests rule history, and then hard-core free marketers, who still believe that rational economic self-interest shapes human motivation. But most Americans have deeper passions, greater desires and higher goals.

President Obama knew this. While Romney preached the hope of future economic improvement to Hispanics, Obama appealed to their self-respect and their desire to be part of a great country. Blacks, whose economic condition on aggregate is tragic, voted in solidarity for the person they sensed understood them and touched them, even if his presidency has conferred no material benefit on them whatever.

Single women were lied to about the designs Romney had on their reproductive rights. But the lie stuck because Romney thought that economic interests would trump personal rights. Even the president's mendacity about Benghazi was allowed to ride, in hopes that worries over the economy would carry the day.

Yes, many Americans wanted someone to address the deficit and help with job creation, all worthy matters. But most Americans were looking for someone who connected with them, who understood not only their financial plight but also their love of liberty plus their sense of responsibility to others. Instead of fortune-cookie slogans about taxes, Americans wanted some serious discussion about the place of our religious values and moral traditions in a changing world.

Everywhere we see people fighting for their religion, for their cultural values, for the traditions of their fathers, for their idea of justice. Warped and destructive as they sometimes are, every day we see people driven not by "the economy" but by their creed, their values, their sense of honor. People sacrifice not for things beneath them, but for ideals they believe are higher than they are. And we Americans, with our pride and creativity and sense of duty, patriotism and love of country, are no different.

Election 2012 was a grand opportunity. Instead, with a borrowed Democratic slogan, Republicans simply gave the last laugh to the ever-wily James Carville.

John Agresto is the retired president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M., and the author of "Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions" (Encounter).

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