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Now and Again

6:00 AM, Nov 5, 2012 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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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.

carter and reagan

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.

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