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April 20, 2014

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For Republicans, a time of soul-searching

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Last week, I kept thinking of those images you see after tornadoes hit towns — homes reduced to kindling, survivors picking through wreckage. That’s pretty much how it felt Wednesday morning.

I believed the predictions that Mitt Romney would win big, especially after uber-guru Michael Barone opined that Romney might even take Pennsylvania. Romney did not take Pennsylvania. Nor did he take the essential swing states of Virginia, Florida and Ohio.

The autopsies will go on for some time, but what looms large for me is the issue of trust.

For much of the late spring and summer, President Barack Obama’s campaign pumped out a narrative smearing Romney as a heartless rich guy, an impression Romney did little to counter.

Romney got a bump after naming Paul Ryan, who had advanced a smart reform plan for Medicare, as his running mate. This was a signal that if elected, Romney would do the big things needed to avoid a European-style debt crisis.

But big things — entitlement reform and tax reform — are complicated. And in the proposal-and-debate phase, the key details are often of interest only to wonks. Winning a mandate for a weighty agenda requires trust and Romney, despite his surge after the first debate, failed to connect with voters to the degree required. He didn’t stress how his tax-cut plan would have boosted economic growth.

Like many others, I underestimated Obama’s appeal and historical status. The electorate apparently was not willing to fire the first black president in favor of a wealthy man whose proposals were not fully understood by many voters.

That leaves the country facing continued deadlock with largely the same players, a situation Harvard economist Greg Mankiw likened to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit.”

The play has three characters who arrive in hell expecting to be tortured. Instead, they are locked in a room together. Soon, they detest each other and realize their punishment is never to escape.

Close, but perhaps in our case, purgatory would be a better metaphor. Escape is possible, but you can’t see how — unless some unknown factor changes. Until that change occurs, we face uncertainty. It’s hard to shake the feeling that last Tuesday, the nation made an irrevocable turn toward a more ominous future, one in which the government role is hugely enlarged at still-unknown costs — both in terms of money and a “depleted” national character, as Paul Ryan put it.

Yet, it’s also clear that the Republican Party must change or be left behind by a changing nation.

The harvest of the GOP’s anti-immigrant fervor was 70 percent Hispanic support for Obama. Many Hispanic voters were angered by Romney’s remark earlier in the year that the answer to illegal immigration was “self-deportation.”

Opposition to gay marriage is another loser for the GOP. Maine, Washington and Maryland approved gay-marriage measures by popular vote. Voters in Minnesota rejected a gay-marriage ban. Wisconsin elected the first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin.

Fighting this losing battle turns off gays who might otherwise vote Republican, and it taints candidates in the eyes of young voters. It’s time to let it go. Gay marriage is gaining acceptance.

For the immediate future, the test for Obama is whether he can redeem the promise of his first campaign, reach for the center — and deal seriously with the nation’s festering problems. How he handles the looming “fiscal cliff” negotiations will do much to shape the character of his second term.

E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board.

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