Saturday, April 14, 2012


It’s almost impossible to find anyone in DC these days who is expecting a Romney victory in the Fall. Sometimes, you’ll hear a warning that the election might be “closer than people think,” but nobody is actually willing to predict that Obama will lose. In fact, for every person who suggests that the race can’t be over because it hasn’t even started yet, you’ll hear two or more people snicker at the mere moniker of Mitt. Just ask Howard Dean – once you become a punch line, your political career is on life support.

Clearly, Romney lacks Obama’s natural talent as a politician. But perhaps the President’s greatest advantage is less about the relative skill set of the candidates than the attitudes in their respective parties. That change in attitude reflects a major turnaround from the last election, which tells me that what we are witnessing may say less about the inherent differences between the parties than it does about the power of incumbency.

Consider the situation in 2008. George W. Bush was President and had served in that capacity for eight long and often painful years. His party nominated a man with a history of serving as a maverick and a moderate, even though his party’s majority was well to his right. Why? Because they saw him as electable, and the thing that mattered most to them was electability.

On the Democratic side, we had a clear front runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was as “establishment” as it gets. She was part of the most powerful Democratic couple in recent memory, was by far more experienced in statecraft than her closest rival, Barack Obama, and had a formidable organization behind her. But the Democrats had been out of power for eight years and their rank and file thirsted for a leader who would take us in the OPPOSITE direction from the Republican incumbent. In Clinton, they found a woman who supported the Iraq War, and who thus could be seen as an opportunist who lacked progressive principles at her core. Obama, by contrast, said all the right things about the war, and appeared to be a true progressive change agent (or at least that’s what he told us he’d be). As a result, Obama became a darling of the left, the young, and the restless. Put that coalition together in a Democratic primary, and not even the Clinton machine can stand in your way.

Was Barack truly as strong a general election candidate as Clinton would have been? We’ll never really know the answer to that question. When it came time for the general election, America spent a few weeks obsessing about the merits of Sarah Palin, and then, shortly after we realized that Sarah belonged on the Sci-Fi rather than the Romance channel, the market crashed … and the race was over. What choice was there? The incumbent party gave us a doomed economy, and the new face promised us hope, change, and the making of history in the form of our first non-white President. By Inauguration Day, only the true die-hard conservatives weren’t thrilled at the choice we made.

That was then, though, and this is now. The Democrats are the incumbents, and the Republicans are the ones who are desperate for a leader who will chart the country on a new course. Just like the Democrats demanded their own progressive litmus test in 2008, the Republicans are returning the favor. They’ve already assembled a mass, grass-roots movement called the Tea Party which is hell bent against big government. Largely fueled by that movement, the GOP was only prepared to support a leader who is ruthless when it comes to government spending, unwilling to raise taxes, opposed to health coverage mandates, callous to the cries of illegal aliens, and passionate about American exceptionalism. Anyone who doesn’t fit that bill could expect to be renounced as a RINO – a Republican in Name Only. And while it’s true that the man they nominated for President was once a “Massachusetts moderate,” the Mittster hasn’t spoken like a moderate in many years. Besides, his Party made every possible attempt to dump him, embracing one comedian or comedienne after another. The only problem was that none of the alternatives possessed the gravitas of Larry, Curly or Moe. At the end of the day, Mitt and his nouveaux conservativism would have to do.

As for Obama’s Party, now that they are the incumbents, they’ve become fat and happy. You won’t see many Democrats take to the streets any more. Oh sure, they had this so called “Occupy” movement, but the truth is that the folks who manned the tents and railed against the “99 percent” were really just the one percent -- the one percent most committed, that is. For the most part, shortly after the Obama inauguration, Democrats went back to their kids’ soccer games, their shopping malls, and their workplaces, and didn’t lose much sleep about public policy.

On the surface, Democratic apathy would appear to be a curse when election time rolls around, but such appearances can be deceiving. To begin, the President has noticed that his own Party will cut him all sorts of slack if he stays away from controversy. Bush tax cuts? No problem – we’ll just leave those alone when our own Party has the hammerlock over Congress. Gay marriage? Nah. We can ignore that issue too. In fact, this past week, when the President announced that he won’t sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination by Government contractors against homosexuals, there was barely any outrage on the left. Moreover, this Administration took years to leave Iraq, is still knee deep in Afghanistan, and has never closed Gitmo … and again, he’s hearing little kvetching from the progressives. All Obama has to do is get on TV and say “I am not a Republican. I am not Mitt Romney.” That’s enough for his troops to rally around him with all the passion he needs for reelection.

He won’t admit it, but I bet that our President actually takes pity on his rival. First, Romney had to kowtow to all the Tea Partiers, Ditto-Heads, and others who view the state of Massachusetts as more a part of Canada than the Good Ol’ US of A. Now, every time the suggestion is made that Romney will have to pivot to the center for the general election, he gets lambasted as a total phony who lacks any principles. Obama hardly had to cast him in that mold – Mitt enjoyed several months of constant head-banging from his fellow Republicans.

At this point, Mitt can’t win. Anything he says will be portrayed as a political stunt, and by election day, nobody in either Party will have any confidence in how this man would govern. As a result, many moderate Republicans and independents will likely either vote for Obama or stay away from the booths, reasoning that “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”
By contrast, Obama doesn’t have to do or say much of anything. Just by serving as President, he’ll have one “happy happy, joy joy” photo op after another. He can take to the TV and talk about basketball, the movies … you name it, if it’s fluff, he can knock it out of the ball park. And when it’s time for nastiness, Democratic super-PACs can do the dirty work for him. Trust me, barring some October surprise, unless Obama shows up in his debates with a Newt, Rick or Mitt mask, he is golden. We Democrats have become so accustomed to looking at the horror show that was the Republican campaign that everything else looks like a sunny day by comparison.

In short, Presidential elections largely turn on the relationship between the particular candidates and the principle of incumbency. If you are the incumbent party, you do have certain natural disadvantages. Your troops might lack the hunger of the other guy’s troops. And if the other guy is popular enough, he and his troops can run right over you. But with a lack of passion comes a forgiving spirit. And as long as the incumbent plays it safe (like this one has) and stays away from controversy, his constituents – and perhaps those in the middle-of-the-road as well -- are likely to give him a pass. That means that the election would turn into a referendum on the other guy, the guy from the party that is NOT in power. When his name is Mitt Romney, and he has been savaged for months by his own troops (not to mention his own statements), it’s not surprising that everyone in DC seems to agree on where that referendum is headed.

Don’t believe what I’m saying? Just remember – George W. Bush got re-elected. It wasn’t because many people liked him, it was because the Democrats lost the referendum on John Kerry. ‘Nuff said.

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