by Jonathan Todd
My most recent visit to the USA coincided with the two weeks of the Democrat and Republican national conventions. This was an immense treat. I could flick through the TV channels and find opinions to suit any taste. Every evening ended with a big speech forming the next chapter of the election.
My standard patter came to be that president Obama needs to do three things to retain power:
First, define Mitt Romney before he defines himself. Second, defend his record in office. Third, own the future.
These are hardly earth shattering insights. They are the components of almost any successful political campaign. But my understanding of the race is formed by thinking them through.
Romney made it absurdly easy for Obama to define him in terms that favoured the incumbent. Romney is a religious man in a religious country who won’t talk about his religion. He is also a successful businessman who struggles to talk about his business career in convincing terms.
Just as military hero John Kerry was traduced to swift boat John Kerry in 2004, so too CEO Romney regressed to a tax dodging embodiment of the one percent. The key strengths of the challenger were decapitated and inversed by a brutal onslaught by the president.
Romney’s heavy use of TV advertising was important to him finally securing the Republican nomination in a race defined by the party flirting with any candidate other than the unloved and wooden Romney. He got a taste of his own medicine when David Alexrod targeted him in TV adverts on behalf of Obama. So successful was this phase of the campaign that it appeared Obama might win comfortably by not being Romney. And, ultimately, this may yet be just enough for Obama.
Having secured the first component of a winning campaign before the convention season, the Democrats went looking for the other two. Bill Clinton’s barnstorming speech provided the script for the defence of the Obama’s presidency. He made dense policy widely comprehensible and he didn’t duck the key question about the record: is America better off than it was four years ago?
Some Democrats had tried to shift this question, rather than confront it head on. Clinton was smart enough to know that people are too clever for this. Some of the political lessons woven into the dazzling tapestry that was his speech are that the fundamental question must be answered and it is possible to convincingly provide this answer in policy heavy terms if the argument is carefully crafted.
Clinton did a better job than Obama of explaining what Obama has been doing for the past four years. I tuned in the next night hoping that Obama would close the DNC with a clear articulation of what he will do over the next four years if granted a mandate by the American people.
But he didn’t do this. Joe Klein has correctly observed:
“His campaign staff has been brilliant when it comes to painting Romney as a hapless plutocrat but has been AWOL when it comes to promoting a second-term vision for the president. The only policy proposal I can recall in his debate performance and convention speech was to add 100,000 math and science teachers. How lame and formulaic.”
In other words, the first of the three components that I claimed as necessary for Obama to win has been solid but the second had to be subcontracted to Clinton and the third has been absent.
Emperor Obama’s nakedness was not exposed till the first presidential debate, which is usually citied as the moment when the race turned against Obama. It did turn at this point but only because Obama’s weak DNC performance created a context where this was possible. Obama’s bizarrely dozy debate performance, sharply contrasting with strength of Romney’s display, undermined Obama’s negative attacks upon Romney: by far the strongest leg of the three-legged stool formed by the three components of Obama’s campaign.
And with this component of Obama’s campaign weakened, what did he have left?
Not much – because of the paucity of the other components of his campaign. His failure to provide a “forward offer” at the DNC caught up with him when Romney’s powerful debate performance took the sting out of his negative attacks.
Obama’s lack of positive content – surely hope and change can be painted in prose, as well as poetry? – has meant that he has returned again and again to negative attacks on Romney, which have become, frankly, desperate and unattractive, but they have been less cutting since the first debate. The momentum has, thus, passed ever more to Romney.
Perhaps this will be enough to carry Romney over the finishing line first. Perhaps Obama’s machine will more efficiently squeeze out his vote – if it isn’t washed away by hurricane Sandy. Certainly, the hole in Obama’s campaign where the next four years should be means that the only way the momentum can return to Obama is if Romney plays a similar role to Neil Kinnock in 1992: the candidate that the nation pulls away from at the very last.
It’s quite possible that the curiously unknowable Romney will play this role but Obama should not have allowed himself to be in a position where he may depend upon it.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist