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Disrupting Obama’s Plan for Victory

Romney can deploy the social issues.

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
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In the July 2 issue of this magazine, we argued that anyone wishing to understand President Obama’s reelection strategy should forget about the 2008 election and examine instead his successful drive to win congressional approval of Obamacare in 2009-2010. He and his team accomplished this by giving up on any effort to change the “elephant in the room”—the persistent unpopularity of Obamacare—and focusing instead on “mobilizing the left power base (labor, the social left, AARP, and Hollywood) and moving through special interests (hospitals, insurance companies, Fortune 500) to assemble, piece by piece, an economic and lobbying juggernaut.”

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The Obama strategy amounted to an odd combination of moral lecturing and raw power—Harvard plus the Chicago Way. Social conservatives and grassroots Tea Party activists attempted to counter this with moral arguments—warning of death panels, universal abortion coverage, violation of the Constitution, and the like—but the conservative and Republican elites who set the tone and controlled most of the anti-Obamacare spending elected to downplay such themes and stick to utilitarian arguments about why the legislation would add to the deficit and make health care worse for most Americans. Though accurate, these arguments proved insufficient to turn the debate.

Today it is even clearer than two months ago that the pattern of the 2009-2010 Obamacare battle is repeating itself in the 2012 election. The Obama campaign is adroitly slicing and dicing the electorate, and the predominant response, so far, of the Romney campaign and of the Republican elites who control the bulk of independent spending is to offer the prospect of superior economic management should Mitt Romney be elected.

The Republican strategy is understandable in the sense that when it comes to the election, the “elephant in the room”—the central fact that can’t be changed—is a national economy that has been at best stagnant during the entire Obama incumbency. Even so, if Democrats can fight the economic issue to a draw or near draw, the “tie breaker” will move toward other issues—in particular, social issues and foreign policy. This is exactly what is happening, though the GOP establishment shows little awareness of it.

The Democrats’ success in neutralizing the economic issue was underlined by the killer line of Bill Clinton’s September 5 speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte: “They want to go back to the same old policies that got us into trouble in the first place.” This trouble was so deep and comprehensive, Clinton helpfully added, that no one—not even he, Bill Clinton—could have made any more progress than has Barack Obama in turning the economy around. In other words, George W. Bush still deserves more blame than Obama for the sorry state of our economy. Nothing infuriates Republican elites, especially Bush-connected ones, more than this line of argument.

The problem is that the American people pretty much agree with Bill Clinton rather than with Republican elites. In Gallup’s most recent sounding on this issue in June, 68 percent still blame Bush for the economic crisis while 52 percent blame Obama. Perhaps surprisingly, the blame assigned to Bush has shown little change over the past two years. Awareness of such polling of course accounts for the near-total absence of the former president’s name and image from the GOP convention in Tampa.

There would seem to be two paths for Republicans to take control of the economic issue and make it a clear net plus for Mitt Romney. One is to find a way to decouple Romney’s economic policy from that of Bush. In substantive terms, the biggest economic policy difference between Bush and Romney is the easy-money policy of the Federal Reserve under Bush appointee Ben Bernanke. Bush supported it, so does Obama; Romney doesn’t. Romney has said that if elected he would want a new chairman and a new policy for the Fed. But the monetary issue is unlikely to be taken up, if only because of a deep division among Romney’s issue advisers. Romney’s top economic guru, Bush alumnus Glenn Hubbard, recently praised Bernanke’s performance and said he should be considered for a third four-year term as chairman, only to be corrected by Romney a day or two later.

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