Given the continued existence of Guantanamo, the expanded wars in the Middle East, not to mention, expanded war powers at home, it shouldn’t be surprising that once again Barack Obama has chosen George W. Bush as his role model.
This is the 2004 election all over again. An embattled incumbent struggles with his popularity due to the perception that he has badly bungled the nation’s most important crisis, albeit one that wasn’t his fault since he inherited it shortly after taking office. The perception is reinforced by the Presidents’ focus on issues thought to be tangential to the central crisis. In 2004 it was the opinion that the war against al Qaeda was the big issue while an unnecessary war in Iraq was a poorly planned fiasco that made the real problem worse. Today the issue is jobs, while the generally accepted view is that the two-year-long focus on a health insurance program was both distracting and counterproductive. Furthermore, this week’s Democratic convention shows that Obama’s re-election platform is vintage Bush: The incumbent promises four more years of the same. Only, instead of more troops and more money, it’s more spending and more money
On the challenger side we have parallels with 2004 as well. Both are unsympathetic rich men from Massachusetts whose past includes prominence in the arena of the central crisis where the incumbent has demonstrated none. It was Silver Star awardee John Kerry eight years ago and it is successful businessman Mitt Romney today. Even their foibles are similar. The etch-a-sketch metaphor for Mitt Romney is a virtual replica of John Kerry’s wind-surfing video. Meanwhile it’s hard not to hear echoes of “I was for it before I was against it” whenever today’s challenger tries to explain away his former support for statist health care. Even the vice presidential challengers are similar: youngish white men from long-shot, though still competitive states, and whose experience appeals to their party’s base: trial lawyers in 2004 and budget cutters today.
But there are differences. In 2004 George W. Bush didn’t have the luxury of being able to lose a few votes and still win re-election. He won the Presidency the first time around by the slimmest of electoral margins and actually lost the popular vote. Bush needed to pick up voters and states to win a second term. Barack Obama can still win even if he drops a point or two from his previous result and loses a few states he once won.
Still, that should offer the current incumbent little comfort. His campaign has lost electoral votes due to redistricting and has already conceded Indiana. North Carolina, which he barely won by 5,000 votes four years ago, is also all but gone. As for constituencies, there are many where Obama has lost support. Young voters support him in smaller numbers this time and appear far less enthusiastic than they did before. There is a real risk that the Democrat will fall under 50% with non-governmental labor voters. Additionally, polls continue to indicate slippage with Hispanics, Jews, and Muslims. As for blacks, exit polls four years ago indicated a level of support that was within the margin of error of 100%. There is no upside left. Joe Biden’s “chains” remark was calculated to ensure that blacks came out to vote in numbers matching 2008’s levels so that Democrats don’t lose those numbers.
Even more alarming to the Obama Campaign should be his overall standing in the polls. Since July his approval ratings have stayed below 50%. Eight years before George W. Bush dropped only once below that level in the last four months before the race.
Confronted with similar challenges, Obama looks to have employed Karl Rove’s plan: highlight social wedge issues to drive up his level of support among a large constituency generally predisposed in his favor. Bush targeted Evangelical Christians; Obama bases his reelection campaign on getting even greater support from childless women. And the central argument by which Obama means to make his case to women is abortion. To me, it appears to be an argument that is both patronizing and simplistic.
I’ve spent the last few months in Germany where, true to the stereotype, outdated American pop culture rules. Yes, David Hasselhoff is still popular here, as evidenced by the fact that his 60th birthday two months ago was a leading story in the German news. One fifteen-year old song currently making the rounds over here is Meredith Brooks’ Nothing In Between. “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint . . . ” she refrains again and again. Though somewhat crudely, she makes the rather obvious point that, just like men, women are complex beings irreducible to a single description or category.
But Obama has chosen a view of women opposite that of Ms. Brooks. To today’s Democrat, if you have a uterus, you must vote blue. Code Pink metaphorically represents this strategy. Dressed in giant vagina costumes, they have reduced womanhood to an organ. Yes, I find it more than a little ironic that the transgendered part of the GLBT community overwhelmingly aligns itself with the party that wants to categorize people solely on the basis of their plumbing.
We saw evidence of the Democrats’ strategy over and over in Charlotte where seemingly every speaker highlighted abortion. If Republicans are the party of God (and they are not), it’s as if Democrats have purposefully chosen to be the anti-God—even to the extent that they willfully created the spectacle of their rancor over any reference to God in their platform.
So now that both parties’ conventions are over we have the script for the next two months. Republicans have consolidated their base around deficit reduction while they attempt to win over independents with a focus on jobs that they say Obama has mistakenly ignored. Democrats meanwhile propose more of the same to fix the economy, while they focus on demonizing Romney and attempt to frighten its most ardent supporters into maximizing their turnout. It’s a plan that has a chance of working. Romney, like Kerry, has just enough deficiencies that he very well could lose to an unpopular president.
But it’s a plan with great risks. One difference from eight years ago is that today there are now roughly twice as many independent voters. Throughout 2004 those unsure whether or not they approved or disapproved of the incumbent hovered between three and six percent. This year opinion polls show that between six and nine percent of respondents are unsure about the president. These are undecided voters whom Romney has courted and Obama has ignored. The Democratic convention made clear that Obama isn’t trying to win their support so much as he wants to make Mitt Romney unpalatable.
Another risk is in the medium to long term. For one thing, building your organization’s core message around the childless isn’t exactly a model likely to yield inter-generational success. Secondly, pinning your party’s hopes on the most vocal advocates of a highly controversial social issue, when there is near universal agreement that other issues are more important, gives your party’s megaphone to those who are both extreme and irrelevant. Sandra Fluke is this year’s Terri Schiavo. For every already-Democrat she inspires to vote, she turns off at least one independent for the crime of insulting them by ignoring larger issues. Karl Rove’s plan to drive up Evangelical turnout in 2004, while it worked then, gave rise four years later to Mike Huckabee, who is perhaps the most demagogic and dangerous major presidential candidate to have run for office since William Jennings Bryan beclowned himself and his party in the late 19th century. It should have taken years for the GOP to disassociate its reputation from Huckabee’s form of Evangelical theocracy. Except now it appears that Democrats look ready to rush into their own version of anti-First-Amendment totalitarianism that, instead of forcing adherence to religious views, forces opposition to them. Most Americans hate both extremes of this tangential debate. If Obama does win, you can be sure that the most extreme pro-abortion voices will shriek even louder in 2016. That can’t be good for Democrats.
Returning to poll numbers, the President’s strategy appears to me to be less likely to work now than it did for Bush in 2004. Bush straddled 50% support almost throughout 2004. If you’ve got half the vote, you can afford to focus your efforts on turning out your base. Barack Obama almost never sees poll numbers that high. Particularly among likely voters, this President is mired around 46 to 48 percent. Coupled with 2008’s remarkably high turnout among usually low turnout youth and minorities, it’s hard to see him hitting 50%.
But give Obama points for consistency. After 2010’s complete Democratic collapse in the worst mid-term congressional landslide in at least a generation, there was much speculation that Obama would, like Bill Clinton before him, pivot to the center. He did not and still does not. Refusing to offer any significant legislation where he could meet Republicans on common ground, he has staked his future on the past two years of no accomplishments while he stokes his party’s disdain for the other side. I think that it is a strategy destined to fail.
But if he succeeds? I suspect that we’ll see yet one more Obama-Bush parallel: a slim-majority reelection of a mediocre president whose own party’s second-term support dissipates in the absence of an electoral challenge.