With Mitt Romney’s nomination by the Republican Party all but inevitable now, many pundits have started to point out how this year’s election bears an uncanny resemblance to the 2004 election. Most of them, though, focus on Romney’s resemblance to the ’04 Democratic nominee, John Kerry. And those resemblances are obvious: Kerry and Romney are both wealthy patricians from Massachusetts; both come with a reputation for flip-flopping and have a problem connecting with the common voter; both had a relatively easy primary season, despite not being particularly well-liked by their party’s base; both ascended largely by virtue of “electability”; Kerry was, just as Romney is, the least objectionable alternative to the incumbent president.
The similarities are eerie, but enough has been said about them that I won’t add more.* What’s more interesting to me is how the similarities hold true on the other side of the aisle. In other words, I expect President Obama’s reelection campaign to look a lot like George W. Bush’s.
*Although here’s one more: They each have weird middle names. “Mitt” and “Forbes”? Really? What the hell is that?
Imagine, for a second, that you are a political operative working for Obama, and that your main goal is to get Obama reelected. What would you do? Well, I’m not an expert (obviously), but it seems like you’d do three things. First, you’d desperately try to avoid talking about the economy. Second, you’d try to focus on foreign policy and social issues. And, lastly, you’d try to make your opponent look out of touch.
Now, the first and third tacks are boring and uninteresting. Both are similar to the Bush ’04 playbook, but for obvious reasons: No incumbent politician wants to talk about the economy when it’s bad, and the attacks on Romney will be similar to the attacks on Kerry because, as noted above, they themselves are so similar.
But what’s interesting is the middle prong: foreign policy and social issues. That these would be a virtue for Obama is rather surprising considering that, on some level, his positions are the exact opposite of Bush’s. Bush started the war in Iraq; Obama ended it. Bush promoted torture; Obama does not. Bush tried to bring democracy to the Middle East; Obama has largely opted to wait for it to ferment on its own.
Of course, the reality is that Obama has continued almost every major Bush policy in the “war on terror” and on some cases has been much more extreme. His renunciation of torture was mostly symbolic, as the practices largely survive (case in point: Bradley Manning, whose great “crime” against America was leaking documents to the press). He has ordered far more drone strikes than Bush ever did, and has now infamously claimed the authority to kill American citizens without any due process; Bush only went as far as spying on us without due process.
But this is about politics, not reality, and the two are seldom related. If you watch any of the Republican presidential debates, you’ll see Obama portrayed as a pusillanimous leader who has compromised American security by abandoning water-boarding, who has allowed Iran to come within mere moments of obtaining a nuclear weapon (despite the ongoing campaign to murder Iran’s nuclear scientists and no substantive evidence that the country is a material threat to American security… sorry, I was focusing on reality again), and who has not been nearly proactive enough in Libya, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab uprisings.
This is probably how most of the public sees the Obama Administration: as far left of his predecessor and less aggressive on terrorism and Iran. And if I were working to reelect the President, this would be excellent news. Americans as a whole are war-weary. They are happy to be out of Iraq and eager to leave Afghanistan as well. Even many in the Republican Party are now drawn to Ron Paul’s message of bringing the troops home and putting an end to America as “the world’s police force.” Terrorism has taken a back seat to the economy as the nation’s most pressing issue.
So as the Republican candidates compete with each other to see who can sound tougher on Iran, Obama’s reelection team must be psyched. The way Romney et al. have been talking about Iran is nearly identical to the way the Bush Administration talked about Iraq before the invasion (“They’re close to getting nuclear weapons!” “They harbor terrorists!” “They’re threatening the entire region!”), as Paul often points out to the applause of GOP debate audiences. Within the Republican Party, there is probably still a base of support for this kind of interventionist foreign policy, but it has lost its grip on the mainstream.
The mood of the country has shifted dramatically from where it was in 2004, when “bringing the troops home” was seen as a sign of defeat. Instead, what frightens most voters is the idea of sending troops somewhere new.* Voters have learned the hard way how expensive these wars are, in terms of dollars and lives, and how hard they are to exit. On the other hand, Obama has enough tangible victories on the foreign policy front—killing Osama bin Laden, toppling the Khaddafi regime without ground troops, preventing a major terrorist attack—to avoid being seen as soft by the general population.
*Caveat: I may be thoroughly underestimating the jingoism of the American populace. It’s easy to say that Americans are war-weary now, but it’s possible that a few trumped-up charges about Iran’s nuclear program, and a few more news stories like this one, will have Americans clamoring for another invasion.
In other words, expect Obama to constantly remind voters (as he did in the State of the Union) that he killed bin Laden, that he brought the troops home from Iraq, and that he has perpetuated the war against al Qaeda. Conversely, he’ll try to make a vote for Romney seem like a vote for Bush’s foreign policy and more war. This is the same strategy Bush used in ’04—when he constantly reminded voters of all he had done to fight terrorism and the dangers of a candidate with a different foreign policy—but with the positions mostly inverted.
The other realm that I expect Obama’s campaign to focus on is even more surprising. Recall that 2004 was the year of the “values voter”—Bush’s victory was attributed by many to higher turnout amongst evangelicals caused by the existence of same-sex marriage bans in many states. This analysis was largely overstated, but it certainly made up a portion of Bush’s campaign. It briefly seemed like the issue of same-sex marriage was going to be a silver bullet for conservatives for a long time.
Now, however, trends clearly indicate that support for marriage equality is growing. Last year, a Gallup poll showed a majority of Americans supporting the issue for the first time. Since 2009 Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and New York all legalized same-sex marriage—and did so without being required by a court to do so.
Of course, those are all generally liberal states, and the issue is still incredibly divisive. But what seems notably different is that now, unlike 2004, Democrats are actively embracing the issue, rather than hiding from it.* Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, a moderate with rumored presidential ambitions, championed the bill, and was rewarded handsomely. Even Barack Obama—whose initial opposition struck many as a political calculus—announced last year that his views on the issue were “evolving.”
*In 2004, even Howard Dean promoted the compromise of civil unions.
The “evolving” line struck many as a dog-whistle to supporters, as if he were saying: “Look, I’m with you on this. I’m just waiting until it’s politically viable.” It seems likely to me that, between now and November, Obama will announce that he’s switched his position completely and now favors marriage equality. Doing so would do for him exactly what the issue did for Bush in 2004: It would make people who were never going to vote for him anyway even angrier, but it would remind his supporters that he’s on their side. Obama’s most liberal supporters, who have largely been disappointed by his administration, would be emboldened by his support of the issue; since a major challenge for Obama’s reelection campaign will be trying to get anywhere near the turnout he got in 2008, he could benefit greatly from such a bold act.
If in 2004 you had told me that eight years later, running for President on a campaign of bringing troops home and promoting same-sex marriage would not only be a plausible strategy, but the prudent one, I probably would have been happy. And it does in fact strike me as good news. But it also illustrates a profound dysfunction with the electoral process. It illustrates how politics and policy are not driven by what is right or wrong, or even what is practical, but by the whims and moods of the voting public. Winning elections is not about making a compelling case to the public, it’s about statistics, demographic trends, and branding. This year, the best marketing strategy happens to be one I generally like, but that doesn’t make the process any less stupid. I told you voting was dumb…