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.
Webster’s defines a “dilemma” as
“a situation involving an undesirable or unpleasant choice.”
Given that definition, the GOP may want to reconsider changing its name to the “Grand Dilemma Party.” The reasons can be found in what can only be described as the tepid response the party’s rank-and-file have demonstrated towards the party’s Presidential aspirants.
Much column space has been devoted to the vagaries of the Republican Presidential Primary season. The topsy-turvy nature of polls; the fact no candidate can seem to muster more than 40% of the electorate for longer than a week; the inability of any candidate to sustain momentum. The commentariat is busy trying to fit round pegs into square holes, though. They’ve completely missed the boat on what’s actually happening this year, having spent the majority of their professional lives ensconced in the daily trivialities of DC politics.
The narrative thus far runs something like this: there is a natural back-lash against establishment candidates, as represented most wholly by Mitt Romney. Each time a new “anti-Romney” rises (currently, that’s back to Rick Santorum) the electorate looks more closely at said candidate and decides he’s a bit too establishment for their tastes. The anti-Romney of the moment fades back, allowing Romney to capture a few states. The cycle then renews, but in the end the establishment candidate (Romney) wins because he will have the backing of the party machinery. The general GOP membership is resigned to this outcome, even if they aren’t happy about it, and so they’re largely staying home this cycle.
I think something more fundamental is at work within the party. To understand it, you have to return to 1980 and Ronald Reagan’s shock win over Jimmy Carter. (Yes, despite Carter’s bungling of the job, nobody really gave Reagan a legitimate chance of winning that November). Reagan’s magic was in forging a new Republican coalition. He began with the limited government Goldwater wing, mixed in the once strongly Democratic constituency of social conservatives from the Bible Belt, added in the anti-communist/strong defense types (who had fled the Republicans after Nixon’s pursuit of détente) and completed the soup with the Rockefeller Republicans. Most seem to forget now, but Reagan spoke often about his pursuit of a Republican Party “Big Tent” approach – the idea of bringing disparate groups together to work towards a common goal. In 1980, that goal was reinvigorating the American economy through (then radical) changes to monetary and fiscal policy, reducing the size of government while increasing America’s defense capabilities, reasserting American dominance in foreign affairs and direct confrontation with Communism and bringing back the traditional American themes of faith, family and hard work. The new groups in his coalition were referred to as “Reagan Democrats.” These were the people, generally blue-collar types from the South and Midwest, who President Obama derided during the 2008 election as “clinging to their guns and Bibles.”
The dilemma facing the Republican Party is that coalition is fracturing. The former Reagan Democrats and Goldwater Republicans that formed the backbone of that coalition are looking at their choices and felling less than satisfied. Moreover, they sense the Party has moved past them. There are either Rockefeller types (Romney and Gingrich) or aspirants to Jerry Falwell’s throne (Santorum), while the one candidate who hews closest Goldwater’s federalist view is also the one who is the antithesis of a strong US on the world stage (Paul). This leaves those two groups, who desperately want a return to the type of leadership exhibited by President Reagan, without a horse in the race. The result is each candidate has partially captured one constituency, but their individual flaws prevent them from fully claiming it. Romney has the Rockefeller wing for the most part, but it is a small part of the party base (in terms of numbers, not money). Santorum has the inside edge among Reagan Democrats (note his success in the Midwest); although his extreme views on using government to coerce, or even force, his moral code leaves many cold. Paul has captured perhaps half of the Goldwater wing, but his personal character issues and documented degradation of minorities limits his success there.
Can they recapture the coalition? They managed to pull things together enough to get George W. Bush elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2004. They lost a fair number of the small –government types, as was represented by the suppressed turn-out numbers in both years: neither party was putting forward a candidate that met that constituency’s desired goal, although both have been paying lip-service to that goal for 15 years now. The fact that constituency voted en masse for Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 undoubtedly cost the Republican Party the Presidency in both of those elections. But unlike 1992 or 1996, there isn’t a strong 3rd Party candidate who is advocating both a federalist view of government and strong foreign policy, and unlike 1980, there isn’t a defining vision of the future allocuted by any of the candidates to rally the disparate groups within the tent. That would seem to kick in the Republican electoral formula from 2000 – run a social conservative/Rockefeller hybrid and allow suppressed turn-out to allow him to win. The problem is this year, that ploy may not work. For starters, the Goldwater wing is particularly resurgent this cycle. Consider how the TEA Party, which is largely comprised of Goldwater types, pushed the Party into power in the 112th Congress and that Paul is polling at better than twice his career norms (this is his third try for the Republican nomination).
While the Rockefeller and social conservatives will likely unite behind either Romney or Santorum come the convention, they currently run the risk of alienating as much as 40% of the party’s base with such a decision. If they do, President Obama will win a tough election in November – and the Republican Party as we’ve known it for 32 years will cease to exist. What will be interesting to watch is what takes it place. Will there be three major political parties, the Democrats (absorbing what’s left of the Rockefeller wing), the Social Conservatives and the Fiscal Conservatives? Or will the big-spending social conservative and Rockefeller wing end up absorbed in the current Democratic Party, while the Republicans re-align around federalists principles? And can the current Democratic constituency accept the social conservatives again? After all, the reason Reagan was able to capture them in the first place was that the Democratic Party began purging them during Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency. Regardless, the outcome of this year’s Presidential election promises more change than perhaps anyone bargained for.