They have a dream. For months now, Republicans have been nursing the hope that déjà vu may be on order, that their favorite year may be making a comeback, and that their nominee, after numerous trials, may be riding a late-breaking wave. Democrats scoff, and predict the mirage will dissipate in the night mists of November 6. There are auguries pointing in both directions. Let us look at them, and see.
The Democratic president, a trim man in his 50s, was elected four years before as a long shot and novice; got his big boost in Iowa (Jimmy Carter practically invented the Iowa caucus), and campaigned on a promise of moral renewal: Carter as the corrective to the Watergate scandals, and a symbol of healing as one of a new wave of integrationist southern governors; Barack Obama as a semi-messiah far above politics and, being the son of an African father and a white mother from Kansas, as a symbol of healing made flesh. The Republican challenger, a fit man in his sixties with a great head of hair, had a major career in his past (as a venture capitalist, and as a film star) before turning to politics and becoming a governor. In the last cycle he was runner-up to a nominee who lost the general election, and he began his new run for president the minute the last vote was cast.
The incumbents had come in on a wave of good will, with huge majorities in both houses of Congress, and prognostications that the Republicans were on a slide to oblivion; but for each the inauguration was the peak, and by summer, each had started to slide. Soon, each was in trouble: Obama suffered a massive rebuke in the 2010 midterms, and by the same time in his term, Carter was deep in "malaise." Depressed by unemployment at home, and chaos abroad, voters decided they wanted to change, but not enough to accept an uncertain replacement. The president was a known quantity, with judgment already cast on his record; the contender an unknown, perhaps dubious, figure. The challenger wanted to focus on the president’s record, and the many things he had failed to accomplish; the president wanted to make it a referendum on the contender, and the even more terrible things he would do.
Like history, the races rhyme, but do not repeat themselves. Obama was in a stronger position than Carter: His win four years earlier had been much more substantial; he did not have a primary fight with a Kennedy; his base adored him, where Carter’s did not; he was a more attractive man and a much better campaigner; and he had an added plus as the first non-white and part-African president, which made people who had seen him as a history-maker reluctant to hand him his hat. While Carter stayed close to Reagan in the polls, his approval ratings were in the 30s, while Obama's have stayed in the mid to high 40s. And where the challengers both had traits that could make them vulnerable, these were quite different in tone. Reagan was seen as too old (he was 69) and too right-wing (he was a movement conservative). His previous career had been as an actor, an unserious job in the view of many; indeed, in Bedtime for Bonzo, he had co-starred with a chimp. Romney was believed to be smart, but he had made a fortune in finance and could be portrayed as heartless and grasping, as well as too privileged: The son of a millionaire governor he had never known hardship, and could be described quite correctly as immune from the pressures of middle-class life. Reagan was criticized as too ideological; Romney had the opposite problem: He was the former governor of a liberal state (Massachusetts) who had to shift gears to appeal to conservative Republican primary voters. If Reagan was described as fanatic or rigid, Romney was called a chameleon, lacking a core. Reagan’s base was secure but he had to reassure and appeal to the swing state suburbanites; Romney appealed to the latter, but his hold on his base was not as strong. Reagan, due to his stage and film training was a great communicator where Romney was frequently awkward at small talk; a former Democrat from a less than privileged background, Reagan had an innate appeal to the Democrats’ base. On the other hand, Romney had a strong resume as a turn-around artist, a man who took troubled assets and made them turn a profit, which seemed to apply to the problem at hand.
With the issues, the rule was "the same, only different," with the differences being matters of nuance and time. Carter’s economy broke down on his watch—in the final two years of his term—and he was duly blamed for it, while the Obama economy crashed before he took office, and he was blamed largely because it failed to recover and thrive. Carter had gas lines, soaring interest rates, unemployment, and inflation, which gave rise to the terms "stagflation" and "misery index"; Obama had four straight failed "recovery summers," record unemployment, under-investment, and flat GDP. In foreign affairs, each favored "soft" over "hard" power, wished to cut back defense spending, thought threats from abroad had been much overrated, thought America exceptional mainly in self-admiration, and seemed to defer to despots and enemies, while dismissing free countries and friends. "The embrace of human rights and the rejection of cold war containment turned into a rolling confessional about America’s role in the world," writes Steven F. Hayward in The Age of Reagan. "Carter quickly eased up on his complaints about human rights in the Soviet bloc . . . and began using human rights as a cudgel against traditional United States allies." He also thought "the U.S. itself had been the root cause of many [world] problems," and should do a "penance" of sorts for its sins. This was exactly what critics thought Obama had done when he made an "apology tour" in his first months in office, accusing his country of "arrogance." He also took care to diss Israel, Poland, and Britain, returning a bust of Winston S. Churchill, and put together an audio compliation of his own speeches as a generous gift to the queen.
Each came a cropper in Middle East countries, Carter’s ordeal beginning in February, 1979, when Iranian mobs briefly seized the American Embassy on the same day the ambassador to Afghanistan was killed in Kabul. It grew worse on November 4, when mobs again seized the embassy in Tehran, this time for good, or at least until Reagan’s inauguration almost 15 months later, when the 52 remaining American hostages at last were released. Mindful of Carter’s example, and Carter’s defeat, Obama took care to create an impression of toughness, largely through drone strikes and the dispatch of Osama bin Laden, which enabled him through his convention in Charlotte to present himself as an effective world leader, who had won hearts and minds in the Middle East region, while beheading the terrorist snake. This lasted through midday on September 11, 2012, when jihadists celebrated the anniversary of their attacks in New York and Virginia by attacking embassies in Egypt and Libya, killing an ambassador and three other Americans, and kicking off riots all over the region in which celebrants shouted "Obama, we are all Osama!" and burned effigies of Obama. At once, it became clear he had not been successful; he had not made the Middle East and/or Muslims love him; "leading from behind" was not more successful than "leading from the front"; al Qaeda was still potent after bin Laden’s death and that death was not a sign that Obama had triumphed in war.
The attacks of 9/11/12 revealed security lapses, confusion, and failures of judgment, made even worse when the administration tried to link them to rage over a 12-minute video, played mainly on YouTube, that very few people had seen. It took time, (more than three and a half years in the case of Obama), but each ended up with breached embassies, a dead ambassador, and records of failure that could not be defended, and needed campaigns of distraction to hide.
In the event, the campaigns the Democrats ran were all but identical. As Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write in Blue Smoke and Mirrors, their account of the 1980 election, Carter’s opponents seized on his record, while he "sought to escape from it, to distort and tinker with the reality, and to paint his opponents . . . as dangerous figures . . . to persuade the voters that the record wasn’t all that bad, that the bad news wasn’t Carter’s fault, and that the opposition would be much worse." "We had to make Reagan the issue," Pat Caddell told the authors. The authors said Carter had to change the election from a verdict on himself to a choice of "two futures," one of which—Reagan’s—would be bound to be nothing but grim.
Carter attacked Reagan as an actor who was helpless without his script or director, a man longing for war with the Soviet Union, a favorite of the Ku Klux Klan whose election would separate "black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South." Obama attacked Romney as a vulture and vampire capitalist, who bought companies, drained them dry, and then cast them off with their employees while he made off with millions, who callously let those employees' wives die of cancer, who tortured a dog, (and a gay classmate), and who failed to befriend his garbage collector. Feminists came forward to declare that Romney and Reagan were throwbacks to the Stone Age or at least the mid-1950’s, who wanted to keep women out of the boardroom. Stray phrases—"Killer trees," (Reagan) and "47 percent" and "binders of women" (Romney)—were seized on and turned into multi-day stories.
Attacks such as these succeeded in driving down the numbers of the Republican challengers, until the debates established them both as plausible presidents and changed the momentum.
On the weekend before the Reagan/Carter debate, undecideds had been moving (slightly) towards Carter, who had a lead of three or so votes in the polls. The Thursday after (the debate was on Tuesday) Reagan was leading by four. That weekend—November 2-3—marked the anniversary of the takeover of the American embassy, and the collapse of negotiations aimed at ending the occupation and stalemate. By Sunday night, Caddell was seeing "some worrisome numbers." A day later, he called Hamilton Jordan in Portland and told him Carter would lose by 10 points. On Tuesday morning, Richard Wirthlin learned Reagan would carry Kentucky, and told him to get his speech ready. Reagan won the popular vote 51-41 percent (with 7 percent for independent candidate John Anderson), won 44 states to 6 for Carter, and 489 electoral votes to 49 for the president. "It’s a fed-up vote," Caddell told Elizabeth Drew of the New Yorker. For a year, they had tried to "keep the wolf from the door" and at last it engulfed them: A poll published November 16 showed that one in five registered voters had changed his mind in the final four days before the election, and the renewed emphasis on the hostage crisis crystallized the profound discontent. "I was convinced that these things were flying around out there," Carter adviser Robert Strauss told Germond and Witcover. "The thing that pulled them together was the hostage thing. . . . Reagan had not really been able to do that. He began [in the debate] with “Are you better off now?” . . . but it still needed something, and that was the absolute spark." In the event, Strauss averred, no distractions would have sufficed to obscure the reality. "The real world is all around us," Strauss said.
Will "the real world" this time trip up Obama? We’ll have to wait until Tuesday to see.