Failed presidencies have long half-lives. Just ask Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. Jimmy Carter’s legacy wasn’t the only reason they lost but they certainly received no assistance from the great peanut farmer’s record in office either. Mitt Romney has a similar problem. The memory of George W Bush’s unhappy presidency remains all too fresh. It makes life more difficult for Romney just as it eases Barack Obama’s path to a second term.
Bush’s legacy doesn’t grant Obama a free pass but it does give him a plausible-sounding way of explaining delays, setbacks and even the occasional failure. Look at the mess we inherited! It ain’t Morning yet but the darkest hour is past.
Worse still, for Romney that is, the stigma now attached to the Bush years makes it harder for him to define himself. Just what kind of Republican is he? Clearly he can’t be heir-to-Bush because only an idiot would volunteer for that post. Yet nor has he successfully differentiated himself from Bush-era Republicanism. At best it means he lacks definition. And failing to define yourself grants the opposition an opportunity to define you on terms that suit them, not you. That’s one reason why the latest Wall Street Journal poll reports that Obama leads by 19 points when Americans are asked which candidate is “looking out for the middle-class”.
That’s a Bush-era legacy too, of course, but it also means that Romney’s apparent decision to run as a more-or-less-but-actually-rather-more-than-less generic Republican can’t help but accentuate the extent to which he’s just another Republican guy and not any kind of forward-looking agent of change.
That same poll found that the candidates were tied 43-43 on the question of which man would be better at dealing with the economy. If you think this is bad news for Mitt you’d be right. If he can’t beat Obama on the economy it’s going to be very difficult for him to win.
Which brings me back to Bush. Once upon a time, towards the end of the last century, George W Bush was considered a pretty nifty political operator. It’s hard remembering that these days. Time and, more especially, events have seen to that. Nevertheless and though Dubya’s become The Great Unmentionable it remains the case that he ran a pretty darn good campaign in 2000.
A different time, of course, and it seems like almost ancient history now. But there is a sense in which Republican disgruntlement with Romney today mirrors Democratic despair with Al Gore a dozen years ago.
Back then, you will recall, Democrats wondered how a smart guy like Al could be losing to – or at best be tied with – a chump like George. They misunderestimated Dubya just as some conservatives have underestimated Obama this year.
It’s about more than the economy, you see. In 2000 life was free and easy and it didn’t seem as though either man would really do much to slow, far less derail, the great American economic juggernaut. They won’t mess it up. In 2012 it’s a different story but with the same effect: four years of grinding economic gloom have produced a kind of stalemate in which neither candidate, far less their respective parties, is trusted on the economy. They won’t fix it. We’re all realists now. And sadder, older, wiser ones at that.
So the election is about other things too. Character. Vision. Optimism. Comfort. Romney’s not a bad man but he’s not made a compelling enough case to persuade Americans of two things. First, that Obama should be fired; second that he should be replaced by Romney.
Political scientists stress that campaigns don’t matter very much and that presidential elections are largely determined by underlying, fundamental, factors. There’s a good deal to this just as there’s a good deal to the fashionable thought that football managers don’t matter very much, not least because money does much of the heavy-lifting for them. It’s true. Underlying trends are important! Many people could make a decent fist of managing Manchester United!
But even if you think these things are largely true, they become less true the more even the contest is. In other words, when Manchester United play Barcelona tactics, strategy and managerial nous matter more than they do when Manchester United play Reading. Similarly, when the fundamentals are essentially priced or baked in well before polling day campaigns – and candidates – become more important than might otherwise be the case. It’s not important in every election but it matters in close, evenly-matched elections in an evenly-divided nation.
Which, again, brings me back to 2000. Bush ran a good campaign! The fundamentals suggested there was little need for change on Pennsylvania Avenue but Dubya still managed to fight Gore to a draw. Ross Douthat explains how:
What the younger Bush did while running for president in 2000 was uncomplicated, disciplined, and effective. He picked a few issues — education, in particular, but also health care and immigration and poverty — where voters trusted Democrats more than Republicans and made it his business to talk about them almost as often as he talked about traditional Republican strengths like taxes and defense. He spoke consistently about bipartisanship and changing the tone in Washington, constantly invoking his own record in Texas as an example. When he championed conservative ideas, he stressed their impact on the middle class and the working poor, rather than just lionizing entrepreneurs and businessmen. When he showed an unconventional side — on immigration reform, say, or faith-based initiatives — the aim was always to make the G.O.P. seem as inclusive as possible, and to cast himself as a president for all Americans, even constituencies that would never vote for him.
He campaigned, in other words, in a way designed to reassure non-ideological voters that he cared about the issues that they cared about, and that he would be something other than a down-the-line ideologue if elected. In the process, he created clear distance between himself and the unpopular national Republican leadership (Gingrich, Dole, his own father) that preceded him. And he also put some distance between himself and what might have otherwise been an obvious liberal line of attack — that he was an out-of-touch Republican fortunate son, with no understanding of ordinary people’s lives and struggles.
Now Bush had greater leeway than Romney. In the first place he didn’t have to prove his conservative bona fides. Secondly, and relatedly, Dubya didn’t have to slog through a prolonged primary campaign. He was able to position himself relative to his party on his own terms. By contrast, conservatives’ lack of faith in Romney has nudged him to the right and closer to the party’s activist branch than he would really, I think, like to be. (I don’t believe, for instance, that Romney really wanted to put Paul Ryan on the ticket; but he had to do something to please the party. There’s a faint echo of 2008 here too.)
Bush would disappoint conservatives too, of course, but at least he made it to the White House before doing so. He was celebrated by Republicans on the campaign trail. They thought they knew who he was and that he was one of them. This too granted Bush the necessary room to, at least in part, define himself as a different kind of Republican determined to talk about non-traditional Republican subjects. We forget it now but in 1999 and 2000 George W Bush was quite, well, refreshing.
But Romney? Hardly. He cannot run on his record as governor because the conservative-base disavows Romney’s signal achievement as governor (Romneycare, of course). Nor has he found a way of projecting a winning, warming idea of Romney the man that might smooth some corners or alleviate some doubts. Seven weeks from the election many Americans still wonder who this guy is and what it is that he’s about. Time’s running out.
So, unusually, it’s the challenger who seems stiff and stale and promising the same-old same-old. We’ve all heard all Romney’s tunes before and, to the extent delivery or performance matters, it’s apparent that Romney’s no great singer or salesman.
Generic Democrat – perhaps a mildly unfair label – wasn’t quite enough for Gore in 2000 and I’m not sure Generic Republican is going to be quite enough for Romney in 2012 either. The two are almost mirror-images of one another. A good economy couldn’t save Gore; it’s not clear a bad one can rescue Romney.
And so, odd though it may seem, one of Mitt Romney’s problems is that he’s no George W Bush.