The conventional wisdom about the 2012 presidential race, among most political professionals and especially Republican campaign operatives, has been this: Reelection efforts are all about the incumbent. This incumbent is beatable. President Obama’s job approval rating, for the last couple of years, has consistently been below 50 percent. This reflects above all a poor economy, and voters vote their pocketbooks.

It’s true, the conventional consultant wisdom continues, that Republicans aren’t too popular either. But if the election is a referendum on Obama, and if Republicans can just avoid getting in their own way by raising wacky social issues or scaring people about their own plans for Medicare, and if the GOP can raise money, hammer away at Obama, and put together a first-class voter turnout operation in key states, then Obama should lose. And an Obama loss means a Republican victory.

This conventional wisdom was right, up to a point. The trouble is, we’re just now passing that point.

Obama’s job approval rating, in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, has risen from about 44 percent approve/51 percent disapprove on Labor Day 2011 to an even 47/47 today. Perhaps it will sink back down over the next seven months. Or perhaps not. The economy may continue to get a bit better, foreign policy disasters may not manifest themselves over the next seven months, and Obama may be a good enough candidate to rewrite the history of his first term and get to the crucial 50 percent level.

What’s more, a Republican campaign that is mostly backward-looking sniping at the Obama first term won’t do much to portray Republicans in a good light. On Labor Day, Obama and Mitt Romney were just about tied around 45 percent in ballot tests. Now Obama leads by about 48 percent to 43. Perhaps that’s just the damage done by the primary campaign. But what if it’s the result of getting to know the candidates better? What’s more, as the general election campaign heats up, swing voters may decide Obama’s more radical inclinations in a second term would be checked by a Republican House and a Supreme Court that isn’t on Obama’s side—and be reassured enough to return the incumbent for four more years.

That is, after all, what voters usually do (e.g., 1984, 1996, and 2004). A conventional, cautious, backward-looking GOP effort against President Obama is as likely to produce a close reelection for the president as a close defeat. The two recent occasions on which an incumbent has been defeated were in 1980 and 1992. But the country isn’t going to be in manifest meltdown, at home or abroad, as it was on Election Day 1980. And Obama’s only been in office four years; there isn’t yet the kind of exhaustion after 12 years of Reagan and Bush that marked 1992. So Republicans would be making a mistake if they spent the fall simply assuming, or hoping, that the late break will be sharply against the incumbent, as in 1980, or that the incumbent’s rally will fall short, as in 1992. Election Day this year could look more like 2004—a narrow victory for a not-too-popular but not-too-unpopular incumbent.

That’s especially the case if the GOP candidate runs a campaign like John Kerry’s in 2004. Which is where the conventional wisdom among consultants is leading him. The campaign was backward-looking, biographical, and lacking in broad themes. Such campaigns degenerate into endless sniping about various misstatements and gaffes by both candidates, and put great emphasis on tactical moves and get-out-the-vote trench warfare in key states. And, to repeat: Obama could win such a campaign.

What’s the alternative? A forward-looking campaign, more like Reagan’s in 1980 and Clinton’s in 1992. Reagan and Clinton didn’t simply depend on unhappiness with the incumbent. They elaborated a different, and they claimed better, path ahead for the country.

Can the Republican nominee do this in 2012? Can he explain how an Obama second term would be even more dangerous and damaging than the Obama first term has been? Can he explain that we’re heading off a cliff of debt and deficit if Obama’s fiscal policies are allowed to continue? Can his campaign make vivid the harm Obama’s tax hikes and regulations will do to the economy, and Obama-care to our health care system and our country? Can he explain what a second term of Obama judicial appointments will do to our courts? Can he explain the damage an Obama second term will do to self-government, and limited government, and constitutional government in America? Can he conduct a campaign that describes how much more dangerous the world might look in 2016 if we continue Obama’s foreign and defense policies? Can the Republican campaign present a choice of paths for the future, à la Paul Ryan’s budget and his explanation of it, rather than simply complain about the recent past and the difficult present?

Republicans will need to run a campaign that explains. Explanation—as opposed to denunciation of others, or celebration of self—hasn’t much characterized the campaign of the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, so far. But if Romney—assuming he’s the nominee—can’t lift his general election campaign above the level of the primary contest, he’s likely to lose.

The good news is that Romney is capable of turning around an enterprise that’s likely to fail. The bad news is that it’s harder to turn one around if the failure isn’t yet obvious. The irony is that a Romney victory in the primaries will then pose the ultimate test of his ability as a turnaround artist. We trust, for the sake of the country, that he’ll be tough and determined and self-critical enough to do the job.

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