Can Romney be Reagan to Obama’s Carter?
First off, I’d like to welcome everyone back from their Fourth of July vacations. I know I enjoyed mine and I hope you enjoyed yours.
As we head into the languid, steamy summer months most of us aren’t paying particular attention to the Presidential campaign. Both candidates, as is typical for the 6 weeks or so leading up Labor Day, are concentrating on fundraising and polishing their message. Unless either commits a gaffe of historic proportions (something the Romney family is well acquainted with), don’t expect either to make much news.
This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for Mitt Romney. Unlike his opponent, he is relatively unknown to the American voting public. If he uses these next few weeks wisely, he can create the underpinnings of a successful candidacy. If not, he will get crushed in November.
A little historical perspective is in order. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination and faced off against an incumbent with a high personal favorability rating. The incumbent, Jimmy Carter, presided over a nation seemingly in decline. The “stagflation” of the late 1970’s – marked by persistent underemployment, inflation and low economic growth rates – had taken its toll on the American labor force. Combined with what seemed like capitulation to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and an inability to deal with the rise of Islamic extremism in Iran, the 39th President had few policy successes to point to, other than the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord. The future 40th President was known by the country primarily as a former “B” movie actor and Governor of California. That July, Carter made his now infamous “malaise” speech, in which he laid out his vision of an emaciated America, impotent in foreign relations and incapable of robust economic growth. “It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation,” said Carter in that speech.
Although initial polling indicated the speech gave Carter an 11% boost in approval and most operatives thought he was crazy to do it, Reagan sensed the opening Carter’s opinion of the American People presented. He countered with an approach that said the problems the nation faced were not from ordinary people, but rather from an intrusive government that seeked to micromanage the American Dream. When he unleashed “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” during the October 28 debate, the nation responded with a heartfelt “NO!” Reagan, of course, went on to win the Presidency with an overwhelming mandate, carrying 44 states and besting Carter by 10 points in the popular vote. Reagan, despite national polls showing him trailing by as much as 8 points a mere week before the election, had stayed on message, trusting in his instincts. His aplomb – and characteristic belief in the American people and their belief in him – had carried the day, the same as it would for the next eight years.
Fast forward 32 years: President Obama could just as easily have delivered the speech Carter gave in July 1980. (In fact, Obama has delivered at least three similarly-themed speeches in the past year). Consider these talking points – can you guess which President delivered them?
“What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends…All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.”*
Like Carter two generations ago, Obama is preaching a gospel of government dependence, of sacrifice and demonization of “special Interests.” Of course, we know from our history that when Reagan forced a Democratic Congress to accept much of his program, unleashing the private sector to grow and innovate in ways it hadn’t been able to since the 1950’s, growth exploded and America went back to work. “Morning in America” became the central theme of Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984, and a proud President was able to speak to a proud nation about the accomplishments we achieved over the previous four years. He did not have to fear anyone asking if the nation was better off. We were, and we knew it.
The central question of the 2012 campaign is not whether the economy will rebound in time for President Obama to win reelection, or if PPACA will fire up a coalition of conservatives and libertarians that leads to his ouster. No, the biggest question in this election is whether Mitt Romney can emulate the Gipper. Like Reagan, Romney faces off against an incumbent that’s generally well liked as a person, but whose executive ability is met with ambivalence. In terms of policy positions, Romney is as far from Obama as Reagan was from Carter. But as anyone who has followed politics knows, personality matters. If Romney wants to win, he needs to do more than hammer the President on his failings. He needs to demonstrate some of the same optimism about the USA’s future that exemplified Reagan’s campaign style. He needs to show that he can and will lead. He needs to ditch the handlers and speak from the heart about his vision for what America looks like in four years.
Can he overcome what has been a wooden personality and achieve a similar result? Certainly, the opportunity is ripe. Despite his personal favorability ratings, President Obama consistently polls under 50% on policy – in fact, his poll numbers mirror those of Carter at similar points in their respective Presidencies (actually, Gallup had Carter with a bigger lead over Reagan than the one enjoyed by the current incumbent). The American People, much as they were in 1980, are looking for a real leader; someone who believes in the future as much (if not more) than they do. If Romney can project the same confidence as Reagan, Obama will suffer a similar electoral fate as Carter. If not…well, that is the end of the American Dream, isn’t it?
*Delivered by Jimmy Carter during National Address, July 15, 1980.