By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
Let’s again state the obvious: in the context of contemporary politics, the 2012 presidential election should have been a slam dunk for the GOP.
Indeed, in modern times, presidents who foster or enable a bad economy often pay the ultimate political price. Perhaps nothing—even warfare—carries as much risk for a sitting president, for it is very nearly an absolute that Americans rarely tolerate unemployment or economic hardship for very long.
Despite his enormous popularity and his nearly unlimited trove of goodwill, Herbert Hoover failed to recapture the White House in the early years of the Great Depression, and his inability to implement a remedy—along with his profound discomfort at expressions of empathy—opened a wide path for Franklin Roosevelt, shattering the early 20th Century Republican electoral template. Then, by early 1940, FDR was himself at serious risk. After eight years Americans were still suffering economic pain as a result of the Depression, and it looked for a brief few months that a Republican challenger—Thomas Dewey or Wendell Willkie—might surely topple the statuesque Roosevelt. FDR survived, but only after a tenacious challenge by Willkie.
President Gerald Ford, after ascending to the highest office in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation, fought in large part not only against the long shadow of Watergate, but also against the forces of a struggling, flat-lined economy. Ford was largely seen as unable to usher-in an effective policy remedy for the pernicious coupling of inflation and recession during a time when unemployment remained stubbornly high. Four years later, President Jimmy Carter would face nearly the same conditions which hindered Ford’s electoral performance: a stagnant economy, rising prices, and an unbearable level of unemployment. More than anything, the economic woes of the Carter years cost him dearly, and were surely the decisive factors in his loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Likewise, George Herbert Walker Bush faced the demons of economic hardship in 1992, and his opponents—primarily Democrat Bill Clinton and Reform Party candidate Ross Perot made certain that voters understood that the election was a referendum on Bush’s economic failures.
Looking at the equation in reverse, the same principles apply. Americans are rarely enthusiastic about tossing from office presidents able to maintain economic stability and market growth on their watches, and chief executives from Dwight Eisenhower to Lyndon Johnson, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton understood the raw political value gained through positive economic stewardship. Candidates who attempt to challenge the assumptions of a stable or growing economy often face insurmountable odds—think of Walter Mondale in 1984 or Bob Dole in 1996.
For these reasons, and above all other factors, President Barack Obama should have been an easy target for the whalers among the Republican leadership this year. The President’s economic reprieve came only at the very end—within the last ten weeks—as the jobs numbers for August and September 2012 began to show their strongest rebound in years. But by the time of the conventions in late August and early September, the most oft-cited political and historical comparison between today and the recent past was the election of 1980. Obama was at risk of sliding into the electoral abyss just as Carter had done 32 years before, and all that was left was for Mitt Romney to deliver that message clearly to voters.
Furthermore—and let’s not mince words—President Obama was largely insulated by his palace guard and by layers of journalistic adoration, which left him vulnerable to slippage. That the president was heavily buffered from reality should have come as little shock, for we had seen this before at the low points of the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But by the end of the summer the Obama administration may have reached a particularly acute form of tone deafness (more like the state-of-affairs which President Carter faced in late 1980) which placed it at deep detachment from Americans and their problems. This insulation and sound-proofing made the outcome of the first debate, held in Denver on October 3, a true shock to the president, his top strategists, and their compatriots in the media, for in that collective school-of-thought surely Romney’s weaknesses—as well as his manifest difficulties through the long, endless pre-primary, pre-caucus debate season—were enough to elicit a sour taste for the son of George Romney.
Instead, Mitt Romney hammered the President. Obama was left looking stunned and dazed, profoundly unprepared for the reality he faced.
Within hours of the first debate, an indelibly lopsided affair which was widely viewed even by liberals as a rousing victory for Romney and a wake-up call for the bruised Obama, the narrative should have changed. Indeed, polling throughout October showed the race tightening even through the split decisions of the vice-presidential debate (an opportunity for Joe Biden to exchange basic civility for scenery-chewing rudeness) and the subsequent Town Hall presidential debate, in which Romney and Obama seemed on the verge of kickboxing and eye-gouging.
The Foreign Policy Debate, held in late October at Lynn University in Boca Raton, settled little. Partisans on both sides claimed victory: The President’s handlers suggesting that Obama had aced it by making the case that the world had become a safer place on his watch, Romney’s surrogates pitching just the opposite—that of a profoundly unsafe world of regrouped al Qaeda cells, a resurgent Taliban and a nuclear-armed Iran. Obama sounded tough and briefly morphed into Harry Truman. Romney became the consummate diplomatic moderate.
Nationally, the polls tightened to within a breathtakingly narrow margin. Analysts and experts regaled us with visions of another cliffhanger, and the frightful demons of electoral deadlocks, broken voting machines and hanging chads were wheeled out on cue. CNN’s John King and NBC’s Chuck Todd enthralled us with their electronic interactive maps upon which, it seemed, all roads led to Florida and Ohio. As the swing states began to fall inevitably into place, North Carolina tilting slightly toward Romney, Wisconsin and Colorado titling toward Obama, Ohio and Florida became ground zero, and in the most critical Buckeye State counties more campaign ad ordnance was dropped than all the conventional weapons used at Dresden.
Then, with a week to go, Hurricane Sandy seemed to drive the entire political conversation away. The loss of life, the power outages and the stunning economic damage took the headlines. Democrats feared logistical nightmares and weather-induced voter suppression. Republicans recoiled at the sudden infusion of presidential grit and testosterone—those images of the President looking…well, presidential…in his rugged Air Force One leather jacket, cotton-polyester blend chinos and sensible shoes. In fact, Hurricane Sandy became the instant poster child for a potential GOP failure. The storm’s fury wrought unimaginable damage across multiple states, and for those several days rightly trumped political news. It can be argued fairly that the monster storm deprived Romney of momentum and stripped him of the opportunity as challenger to control the narrative of those final, critical hours.
And there were others for Republicans to blame: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell; New York Mayor Mike Blumberg (Hizzoner stated publicly that Hurricane Sandy was prima face evidence of Global Warming). But in truth, none of these constituencies were ever within reach for the GOP: New Jersey and New York were solid Blue and would remain so, regardless of the actions of their political chiefs or mayors. Powell’s endorsement of Obama swayed few truly undecided voters, and served only to feed journalists and ad copy for a few last-minute Democratic TV spots.
Further, such assigning of blame to individuals takes us back to the enduring maxims about strategic planning and a resonate message—like Al Gore’s complaints during the election deadlock of 2000 in which he blamed Florida’s hanging chads and a rogue Ralph Nader for his loss. If your strategy is so tenuous that it hangs by a frayed thread, then your strategy was flawed from the start.
In truth the GOP has little reason to blame any one person or any single thing for Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama. This was self-inflicted, and it was a group effort, though Romney himself must accept a large part of the responsibility.
In Part One of this essay earlier this month (see Anatomy of a GOP Loss; Part One), I discussed at length the GOP’s principal errors: an over-reliance on Tea Party agitation and divisive populist rage; a profound inability to modulate the tenor and tone of the seemingly endless cycle of Republican debates; the surreal visage of a Mitt Romney unable or unwilling to come to simple, practical terms with his past positions on everything from health care to same-sex marriage to abortion. Most of all, candidate Romney seemed fatally drawn toward malapropism and pratfall. In past times, such blundering would be manageable, and certainly substantially less than fatal. But in an age of continuous media scrutiny and a viral capacity for instant spin, Romney’s occasional remarks—about rich or poor, about the 47%, about his binders full of women—fed the time-honored, well-oiled dichotomy between television journalists and their counterparts among the Democratic Party hucksters. Romney’s clumsy words were being viewed on the internet tens of thousands of times a day, shared exponentially, and conscripted into slick advertising by the Democrats and Obama’s marketing machine in Chicago. This media barrage became the defining condition for the Romney campaign.
Strangely, perhaps in the vindicated view of the late Marshall McLuhan, Romney’s sometimes “inappropriate” words would seem anti-climactic when seen in print, for surely he was echoing nearly verbatim what had been said ten thousand times by a thousand social and political academics since the late 1960s: that as a nation we have been creating an entitlement state in which millions of Americans become more-or-less permanently dependent on government services and outreach, and, by extension, happily predisposed toward whichever political party more reliably delivered such goods in exchange for loyalty. Erudite liberals like Daniel Patrick Moynihan had said as much in 1970.
Instead, Mitt Romney became defined by such remarks, and a portrait was quickly painted of a man who was a member of the one percent, and a tool of the ultra-rich. Expressing his concern for the middle class in one television interview he said he “wasn’t concerned about the wealthy, since they’re doing fine, and we‘re not worried about the poor, since they’ll be taken care of.” In response to a question about oil prices and the household budgeting effect on middle class women, Ann Romney alluded to how much it cost her to fill the cavernous gas tanks of the two family Cadillac Escalades, a pair of monster SUVs which combined are worth more than some people’s homes. Her remarks went viral on the internet and were repeated a thousand times within 24 hours by multiple television news outlets.
In the prevailing template of Tea Party outrage, Fox News doctrine and mainstream Republican thinking, this chemistry can be blamed directly on a generally hostile, liberal media. But this too (like the other targets in the revolving blame game) misses the larger point. Setting aside the obvious media partisans, such as Huffington Post, Red State.com, MSNBC and other media outlets with a decidedly leftward or rightward tilt, the larger journalistic community was, on the whole, fair in its treatment of the election—even straining, at times, to deploy the sort of equivalency that rankles many progressives.
The unspoken reality of the last four years (or at least of the intervening chapter since the swift rise of the Tea Party, which was seen largely as a reaction to Obama) is that as president, Barack Obama was given no special passes by the press. Sure, there was the usual honeymoon period granted most incoming presidents, which for Obama afforded him the political clout to usher in Obamacare despite uniform GOP opposition. And it is fair to argue that as president, Obama secured a predictably larger halo effect than most new presidents—the result of the game changing nature of his political style (which, as we have seen, did not actually change the game) and the post-racial implications of his victory, in which millions of white voters chose to support an African-American for president.
Still, harsh reality, as it does for most new chief executives, quickly set in—this despite the new president’s oratory and his lofty goals of a new dawn of post-partisanship and conciliation. The predictions of his old primary and caucus adversaries—John Edwards and Hillary Clinton—soon seemed vindicated: the new President, working only on the fuel of his ideals and soaring rhetoric, would be unable to forge consensus or channel bipartisanship from the rancorous mess that is Washington. Though cool under fire and savvy, certainly always measured in his language, Obama nevertheless seemed unprepared for the ferocity of the political counter-attacks which surged toward him. With Nancy Pelosi and the House leading the way on his earliest thrusts, the new President quickly ushered in the great health care reform bill so yearned for by every Democrat since the 1970s. But his victory was Pyrrhic, and in the resulting divide, in which Republicans were uniform in their opposition, Obamacare was weak and vulnerable at the very instant of its birth. He had not found consensus. This can be blamed on an intransigent and stubborn GOP, but fault can also be fairly assigned to the President and his top advisors for being unable to work smartly with congressional leaders to forge bipartisanship.
Then, the second tier of reality began to set—grumbling not among the conservative versus liberal divide, but along the old unhealed fault lines which separate reform progressives and their Old Line liberal counterparts. As I frequently illustrated in my Road Show columns in 2007-2008, candidate Obama began his presidential journey as a man of the Third Path—striving to find a voice distinctly separate from the loosely defined New Politics movement (think of Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, John Lindsey, George McGovern and Gary Hart) and also different from the threadbare practices of the Old School (Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale). Employing the same conciliatory and pragmatic street-level success which had served him well in Chicago, candidate Obama sought to distance himself from these two, often warring factions of the contemporary Democratic Party.
But by the conclusion of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in January 2008, it was clear that progressive John Edwards would not make the final cut, and indeed, after South Carolina, Edwards’ candidacy seemed irrelevant in what had become an epic fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton took the wide road of the Old School, following the traditional and reliable formula of the simple political pact—an expansion of social services and entitlement as an inducement to voters predisposed to the contemporary Democratic Party template; bread and butter in exchange for votes. Obama moved quickly left—or, more precisely, leftish reformish—not precisely to Clinton’s left, but picking up the lineage where other New Ideas progressives had left off, from Jerry Brown to Gary Hart to Bruce Babbitt. But, unlike Hart and the others, Obama’s superstardom became relentless and viral, and despite the relative parity between the two warring factions, the Clinton machine was unable to close the deal. Clinton had become the paragon of the Old Way; Obama the reformer and soaring speechmaker blazing a remarkable new path.
With his November 2008 victory over Republican John McCain, Obama had accomplished what virtually no other Reform Progressive had ever achieved—an Electoral win, erasing the long stigma of the disasters that befell the likes of George McGovern, Michael Dukakis and others. But like other reformers and masters of the New Speak, much was projected into the Obama candidacy that had not been explicitly promised, or even implied. If his campaign had become a movement, then that movement carried with it much expectation, especially by members of interest groups and cultural segments predisposed toward the historic significance his election had brought to the nation.
Though his Affordable Health Care Act had been the big ticket item, nearly all other aspects of his early years—in the view of those who had mostly ardently supported his candidacy—ranged from middling to frustrating: a failure to shut down the detention facilities at Guantanamo; a tacit pardon of real or perceived forms of harsh interrogation during the immediate post 9/11 years; a reluctance to quickly ramp down the dual conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (Biden had pledged an immediate withdrawal); a profound resistance to announce a date-certain for withdrawal from Afghanistan; the widespread deployment of sterile and lethal high tech weapons (especially drones) in two the Two Wars and over Pakistan; a suddenly warm and cozy relationship with scores of CEOs and CFOs of some of the largest banks, mortgage lenders and Wall Street firms; a reticence to assign direct, compensatory blame to some of the biggest bankers who presided over the Wall Street catastrophe; an inability to eloquently call to task GOP leaders now in the fledgling resistance movement; and a sluggishness on a host of social issues—from birth control to guns to immigration to same-sex marriage. Many liberals and progressives were quietly frustrated and disappointed; some were openly unmoved by Obama’s conciliatory forms of outreach. The full force and fury of the Occupy Movement—first in New York City, then in over 200 cities nationally—seemed to confirm the notion of an Obama born-again as a moderate and a quasi-centrist.
To many progressives, Obama had been deftly coopted into the system, just as Ralph Nader had predicted of every Democratic presidential candidate. There was a dime’s worth of difference, but only barely in the minds of some progressives.
But more importantly, Obama’s administration had been sluggish and often ineffective at a creating economic progress. By the end of 2010 and the early months of 2011, the nation was approaching the point where nearly half of all adult Americans were flying below the radar of taxable income. Economists pointed out the obvious: the country was rapidly becoming divided along income lines—with roughly half the country earning and paying 100% of the taxes, and the other half not working and receiving the majority of the government benefits.
Accompanying this numerical slide in 2011 was of course good news: some months were finally beginning to show tiny increases in the jobs numbers (though some were flat), and the stock market seemed to be making a game stab at recovery. There were also those dazzling American success stories being heralded in the mainstream press as evidence of U.S. muscular resolve and dynamism: Google, Facebook, Apple, Intel, and dozens of other technology based giants. What was more stunning, however, was that those writers and journalists rarely mentioned how few people companies like Google and Facebook actually employ. Nor was there much discussion about how the majority of Apple’s workforce is located in China.
Ultimately it was employment that remained the most dangerous political factor for the president, as many economists pointed out the increasingly large numbers of people giving up on their job searches, and those who had become underemployed—working part time, or working as occasional workers without any benefits. And there was that one-step-forward-two-steps-backward problem: the fluctuating numbers—jobs gains up a bit one month, then down the next—indicating a lack of confidence on the part of employers, large and small. If any one factor had the power to undo Obama’s political capital, joblessness was that factor.
Then, beginning in May 2011, nine major Republican candidates began what would become the first of an eventual 30 debates, more debates than were held by both parties in all of 2007-2008, and more than were held by all parties between 1976 and 1992. As I illustrated in Part One of this piece, Mitt Romney quickly found himself under assault from his own party membership, now swollen with angst and unrestrained frustration. With the Tea Party phenomena now a thinly disguised backlash against all things Obama, and seemingly a rightist mirror image of the Occupy forces which existed by then in nearly every major American city, a wide array of alternate Republican candidates fought from within, realigning the GOP language and its footprint in ways not seen since the epic power struggle between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964.
As the presumed front-runner Mitt Romney became the stage stand-in for Obama, the former governor was pummeled ceaselessly and without mercy—occasionally hit from the center (if such a place existed) by Jon Huntsman, but more frequently from his right—in what amounted to the longest tag team assault in pro wrestling history. Though this would have been withering to most candidates—even front-runners with debate experience—Romney managed to remain largely poised and upright. Fox News Chief Roger Ailes even encouraged the glitz and the farcical tone, and many of the debates seemed less like American politics and more like Fear Factor or Survivor. A Republican friend said of one of the debates, “It was like watching an episode of Jerry Springer, only in this case everyone was wearing Brooks Brothers suits and Florsheim wing tips.”
Fox News encouraged audience reaction, allowing for boos, catcalls and whistles, and in some debates the audience jeered loudly at panelists who asked questions perceived—rightly or wrongly—of bias. CNN, using generally better moderators (Wolf Blitzer, John King, Anderson Cooper to name three) staged several debates only slightly more decorous but still smacking of Ultimate Fighting bouts. Attempts by a few networks to modulate this carnival atmosphere and tamp down the sense that we were watching Roman gladiatorial elimination fights resulted in a surreal antithesis: one debate by NBC in Tampa was so low key I called it the Sedate Debate; on the fourth row behind moderator Brian Williams a man appeared to be asleep, or dead. Candidate Newt Gingrich, a candidate who often benefited from crowd reaction, complained loudly in the news the next day about the strict, draconian guidelines and asked that the people be allowed to have their voice heard. But in a raucous debate a few days later, in Jacksonville, with the auditorium apparently packed with vocal pro-Romney supporters, Gingrich was easily bested by Romney, and the former speaker was then inclined to reverse himself on his point of order.
The jury remains deadlocked on whether the long debate season helped front-runner Romney—making him stronger for the experience—or whether the seemingly interminable process opened too many mortal wounds. Writing in The Atlantic, author James Fallows’ argued that Romney grew larger and more mature as a result of his political combat. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But the opposite outcome can also result from the excess that the debates wrought. Romney was routinely pilloried for his pragmatic compromises while governor of Massachusetts, and his authorship of Romneycare—the keystone achievement of his tenure as governor and the actual model for Obama health care initiative—recast the son of George Romney as an apostate, a closet moderate and, worse, a potential neoliberal. He fared little better on his flexible migrations on issues ranging from abortion to gay marriage.
During the summer and fall debates across Florida, Iowa and Nevada, the former governor was thrashed mercilessly on these issues by Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum. Even Huntsman and Ron Paul piled on. Despite his forced smile and steely but polite gaze, Romney sometimes seemed like the Naked Fat Man at Altamonte. Midway through one debate a friend posted on Facebook “Jeez, why don’t they just beat him with pool cues next time?”
By then Romney’s survival depended almost entirely on his ability to outmaneuver those on his right flank. His opponents took turns being the challengers to the status quo: Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum, each attempting to make the case to their GOP brethren that Romney was an imposter. The message, reinforced by almost continuous media coverage, began to take hold. Republicans were in full revolt. Romney was a creature of wealth and Wall Street and unmitigated greed and everything that hurt about the recession. Gingrich frequently called Romney’s backers “the elites.” A strange dance commenced; a complex waltz in which Romney became the most flexible man in American politics. Instead of defending his record as one of pragmatic success and bipartisanship in one of the most liberal states in the nation, he fled from it—in denial and in flagrante.
Meanwhile, in the White House and in Chicago, Obama’s strategists were watching. There were two schools of thought: Romney would emerge stronger, leaner and meaner—a super candidate with the arena skills of Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Furthermore, the dozens of GOP debates had given the Republican message free reign on multiple networks, along with the inevitable media chatter which often lasted for days after each event. Once the Republicans settled their business, the GOP partisans would rally around their standard bearer as they always do.
But there was the opposite possibility, and this presented an opportunity for Democrats, especially as the narrative within the GOP pushed ever more rightward. With the Romney conversation off-center, Obama could—at long last—reach out to progressive causes and liberal social concerns. Indeed, once withdrawal of American forces from Iraq became a reality, the President went to work to shore up support from some of the groups who had been instrumental in his election.
A series of initiatives—some carefully orchestrated, others crafted as trial balloons—were rolled out of the Obama White House. This became Obama’s “Progressive Season,” with direct and blunt outreach toward special interest progressive causes. From his endorsement of a liberalization of marriage rights for gays and lesbians (which began as an overstatement of official Obama policy by Joe Biden), to his proposal for a pathway to citizenship for younger, college-bound or military-bound Latinos, to an administration decree mandating that insurers provide coverage for contraception, to a Justice Department pushback in the courts against the strict, unilateral enforcement of immigration guidelines in states like Arizona and Alabama—the White House seemed committed to a fortnightly schedule of new, progressive initiatives.
In a typical presidential election cycle (has there been one of those 1996?), such bold leftward movement along such a wide front would certainly carry great risk for Democrats, but the talk of a deeply divided America was, by that point, the central theme in almost all media coverage of the election, and the President was now all-too-willing to trade the soaring rhetoric of commonality and conciliation in order to engage along these fault lines. And in the context of the immoderate and sometimes shrill Republican debates, it gave Obama the opportunity to look simultaneously progressive as well as moderate, and this was a win-win for the President. Example: at the same moment that Herman Cain was trying explain his aside about an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, Obama was engaged in formidable and popular outreach to young Hispanics, and in the process securing the votes of their families and friends in the U.S.
Within a few short months, Barack Obama had easily reclaimed the enthusiastic support of the idealistic and progressive-interest voters, some of whom may have stayed at home because of disappointment or dissatisfaction over what had been—up to that point—a sluggish embrace of the priorities of the left-of-center movements. Most strikingly, almost all of this reconciliation with his base was taking place parallel to candidate Mitt Romney’s ferocious fight for survival with his own party. In a journalistic environment accustomed to a fractious Democratic Party providing mainstream daily entertainment, it was instead the continuous coverage of the GOP insurrection which held TV viewers in thrall as Santorum and Gingrich battled with presumed leader Romney through various debates, and in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and beyond. The last stretch of debates, in Tampa, Jacksonville and Mesa, were watched by huge television audiences, and the significant sound bites were replayed hundreds of times in the news cycles.
A clear contrast emerged—like an enormous split screen for Americans—with the GOP contest dominating the evolving language on the right, and Obama’s rapid-fire series of progressive initiatives on the left. The media was largely complicit in coupling news of Obama’s newfound liberal commitment with the deteriorating unity among Republicans; reporters, a group reluctant to embrace nuance or complexity, were more than willing to amplify their ongoing narrative of a nation deeply divided.
(This is Part Two of a series of articles on the election of 2012)