If Romney had won, I'd be saying it was because Americans have a long, long history of booting incumbents who preside over high unemployment and economic weakness.
This much is true. In fact, I think Romney counted on it all too much. In the end, his case against Obama came down to "Your economy sucks."
I guess he figured it worked for Reagan.
But no, actually, it didn't. Reagan's case against Jimmy Carter in 1980 wasn't merely a negative one, but backed up by a well-developed and then-new alternative philosophy of economics.
You can disagree with that philosophy, in whole or in part, and question how new under the sun it was, but there's no question that there was a "there" there. Tax cuts, deregulation, laissez-faire, supply side economics, and the Laffer curve amounted to something substantial.
Reagan had a positive vision, and that makes all the difference. What matters in politics isn't what you're against, it's what you're for.
What did Romney have? A thin "five point plan" with less substance than Ronald Reagan's offhand remarks. The same old Republican orthodoxy, only of interest to orthodox Republicans. Tax cuts that weren't irresponsible because tax increases would make up for them -- so they weren't really tax cuts, just changes.
None of this was inevitable. The political space exists for a new rightist vision of the economy. It's called economic nationalism.
This position says that America's economy has been getting sick from uncontrolled globalization for years now, and that the answer is to reassert our original economic tradition, which goes back to Hamilton, of running our economy explicitly in the national interest, not in mere deference to the supposed benevolence of free markets.
Its first big policy would be repudiating free trade. (Which I support.)
Its second big policy would be cutting mass immigration. (I take no position here, but it's part of the package.)
If Romney had been serious about these policies, he could have offered the American people a real alternative to Obama. Both these policies are popular with the voting public, and even more so with the rightist and centrist voters Romney needed to win.
Romney did make some noise about cracking down on China's abusive trade relationship with the United States. He did take positions on immigration (especially illegal) that were more opposed than Obama. I even thought for a while that he was really going to ride these issues.
But he didn't. He took the positions best for him, but never really used them. His campaign was all "Your economy sucks."
I don't know why he did this. Perhaps he didn't understand his need to offer a serious alternative and a positive agenda. Perhaps he thought he could win without them. Perhaps his shadowy backers waved him off.
Al Gore is no longer America's only "nearly man."