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.”
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.
The second path is for Team Romney to recast the economic debate into a choice between two diametrically opposed paths to the future. This seemed possible in mid-August when Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate. But after a brief flurry of engagement on such issues as Obamacare’s raid on the Medicare trust fund, the Romney/Republican strategy reverted to its earlier theme of reminding voters that the Obama economy is underperforming and could benefit from more competent management by Romney. Perhaps unconsciously channeling the view of an earlier governor of Massachusetts who became a nominee for president, Michael Dukakis, the Romney/Republican plea seems to be for the debate to turn on “competence, not ideology.”
Neither Team Obama nor the thoroughly polarized politics of 2012 seems likely to accommodate Romney and the GOP establishment on this point. Even on economic issues, this is a morally tinged, values-laden election, the closest thing to political Armageddon since, say, 1860. In elections of this type, technocratic competence is unlikely to carry the day.
At times Romney himself seems to sense this. He defended traditional marriage in his speech to the NAACP, which turned out to be the only applause line from an otherwise partisan audience. He decried the removal of God from the Democratic platform, before his strategists pulled him back when a reference to God was restored in Charlotte amid the boos of hundreds of delegates. To the horror of the mainstream media, Romney seems to sense that the implosion of the Obama foreign policy on September 11, 2012, in Benghazi and Cairo is above all else a moral collapse, deeply intertwined with the administration’s unwillingness to defend the values of America’s founding.
When it comes to social issues, the Romney advertising campaign has on occasion interrupted its economic messaging to take a glancing shot at such targets as the HHS mandate and the grave threat it poses to the existence of the American Catholic church in the public square. The powerful and preeminent independent campaign managed by Karl Rove and his Crossroads organization never has addressed and apparently never will address this issue.
We have worked with Rove on more than one issue and greatly respect his ability. We were ardent defenders of Rove during the hell to which he was subjected by independent counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s multiyear investigation of a supposed security breach he had nothing to do with. And we appreciate his role in positioning a reluctant president as a defender of traditional marriage during the 2004 presidential campaign, which proved crucial in saving the nation from John Kerry and (among other things) a liberal-run Supreme Court.
All this, and particularly that last circumstance, makes it remarkable that Rove is bringing to bear his unmatched credibility among Republican political and financial elites to discourage the deployment of social issues against the policies of an administration as extreme on such issues as this one. Moreover, the Obama campaign’s strategy of maximizing turnout among the most committed elements of the Democratic base by means of in-your-face deployment of social issues makes it exceptionally vulnerable to GOP engagement on such issues. Yet to judge from the public campaign, an undecided voter in the Midwest is unlikely to know that if Obama gets another term, same-sex marriage will be imposed nationwide by the federal courts or that the Catholic church will likely be forced to close down or vacate most of its social and educational institutions because of its refusal to pay for contraception, sterilization, and early-term abortions.
Emblematic of Rove’s view of social issues is his war of words against congressman Todd Akin, who soon after winning Missouri’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate committed a gaffe concerning a woman’s chances of getting pregnant as a result of rape, comments which Akin quickly retracted and for which he apologized. “As a result,” Rove said in an interview, “this is a mistake from which, in my opinion, he cannot recover. . . . The race is over unless he gets out. . . . Look, it’s not gonna do Todd Akin any good to lose by the biggest margin that any Republican Senate candidate has lost in modern history.” Later Rove said at a private fundraiser, “We should sink Todd Akin. If he’s found mysteriously murdered, don’t look for my whereabouts.”
Rove apologized for the “mysteriously murdered” statement when it became public, but not for his wildly inaccurate analysis of Akin’s viability. No pollster shows Akin losing to Senator Claire McCaskill by the “biggest margin” in “modern history.” In fact, his 5-point deficit to McCaskill in the Real Clear Politics average is at this writing the third-best showing in the country by a GOP challenger to a Democratic senator. The biggest threat to Akin’s candidacy is not voter reaction to his gaffe but the cutoff of money to his campaign by the Republican establishment in response to it.
Not that the GOP establishment needs much persuading. Fear of being associated with the nonexistent “Republican war on women” is doing much more than endangering a Missouri Senate race. It is awarding Barack Obama an undeserved path to reelection by leaving largely unmentioned the socially extreme positions most likely to defeat him.
Frank Cannon and Jeffrey Bell are president and policy director of the American Principles Project, a Washington-based advocacy group.