I keep waiting for it: the first general election attack on Mitt Romney. Though still well within the formal primary phase of the 2012 campaign, my view has largely moved to the seemingly inevitable head-to-head clash between Romney and President Obama. I don’t like what I see.
It’ll be a nasty fight. And I foresee some of the nastiest of it emanating from “our” side.
As Richard Stevenson recently wrote in the Times, the President’s political team is looking to the past for lessons on how it might eke out four more years. And it is looking, not to its own monumental electoral success of 2008, but to that of George W. Bush and Karl Rove of 2004. That’s a chilling prospect, all the more so because of how much strategic sense it makes. Many of us at ACT NOW remember the 2004 campaign – the one that brought so many of us into the political process for the first time – as cynical and corrosive, almost toxic. We are headed down that road again.
It’s often said that a president campaigns in poetry and governs in prose. (Despite some soaring moments, President Obama has proved to be among the more prosaic of leaders.) In the coming year, the President will no doubt try to channel his inner Maya Angelou. But the essence of his campaign – particularly the messages emanating from his proxies – will be the kind of taunting schoolyard verse that we all remember from childhood. If Obama wants to win, I fear that he has no alternative.
Roughly speaking, every presidential election becomes a referendum on a single question. The campaign is all about who defines that question. In 2008, Obama succeeded in defining the election as a question of who could best renew Americans’ faith in themselves and their leaders, who could bring “change.” Bill Clinton did the same in 1992, as did Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Kennedy in 1960.
It doesn’t take a political scientist to forecast the “natural” referendum of 2012: are you better off now than you were four years ago? Americans are so not-better-off than they were four years ago (or eight or twelve years ago) that I’m surprised that the political mood isn’t even fouler. The fact that the seeds of the crisis were sown years ago or that the President’s team probably averted a catastrophe is largely irrelevant: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” And, you know what: someone’s got to pay.
If 2012 becomes that referendum, President Obama will lose. He may even lose big. Because, let’s face it, the economy is not going to get meaningfully better in the next 12 months. Despite Thursday’s news that growth was a moderate 2.5% in the second quarter, we are not going to climb out of the unemployment hole by the time that voters pull the lever. At best, the “trend” will be positive: but, even that case, things will probably seem fragile and subject to reversal.
Since the President’s team cannot win the economic referendum, they have to change the question. The only one that they can win is “Can you really trust Mitt Romney?”
Every presidential challenger must surmount a basic credibility hurdle. Is the challenger qualified to be president? If times are tough and the challenger meets that burden of proof, voters will swing to him or her. If not, they will stay with the President. As Bush proved in 2004, no matter how inarticulate, uninspiring, inept, and woefully inadequate the incumbent is, he can defeat a challenger who has been sufficiently tarnished.
So, here’s the problem: Mitt Romney is “qualified” to be President of the United States. There, I said it. (No doubt, I have guaranteed myself a flood of angry email from liberal friends.) It’s hard to deny that, within the cognitive framework of a typical voter, Romney is amply qualified: he is well spoken, intelligent, and pretty boring; he knows the issues; he tends not to say offensive things; he has been a reasonably effective governor. More importantly, he is a tall, rich, white male with good hair and good wrinkles, whose father was also a governor. And he went to Harvard, twice – business and law. Folks, let’s face it: this is the Platonic ideal of presidential-ness. If I were a director, I would cast Romney as the president who stands in the window of the Oval Office, starring resolutely as the killer asteroid hurtles towards Planet Earth. He’s that guy. (“Ann, take the kids and get on Air Force One now.” “But, Mitt, we can’t leave you here. The Secret Service said that the asteroid is headed right for the White House.” “Damn it, I said, leave. Now! I…have…a job to do.” Embrace. Passionate kiss. Scene.)
So, is President Obama’s only hope that Romney will turn out to be less like Harrison Ford and more like Al Gore or John Kerry? After all, they looked a lot like Romney on paper. Indeed, the Times pieces makes clear that the White House intends to exploit the latent perception that, like Kerry, Romney is a “flip-flopper,” that he’s not credible or trustworthy, that “at least you know where the President stands.” (Pardon me while I curl up in a PTSD-ball for a few minutes. 2004 is still a bit raw.)
But that strategy worked in 2004, not just because of who Kerry was, but also because of who George W. Bush was (or postured as). Enough people read Bush’s comical swagger, his flight-suited bravado, his idiot-smirk as emblems of confidence and security, and Rove & Co. drew a successful contrast with the supposedly cerebral, feckless, effete, vaguely European Kerry. American beats European every time.
So, remind me, between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in the public mind, who is the cerebral, feckless, effete, almost indefinably un-American candidate?
Don’t get me wrong: the White House will go after Romney’s willingness to endlessly pander to the GOP base. Mitt would throw himself under the bus if it helped him get elected – the 2003-2007 version of himself, that is. But that angle won’t, in itself, re-direct the referendum away from the economy.
To win, the Obama team will need to create a coherent narrative. To do so, they’ll end up tying Mitt’s lack of credibility to the issue that Romney claims as his strength: the economy. They must pull off a loop-de-loop political maneuver of taking the very factor on which the President is politically weakest, and pin Romney to the wall with it. In short, this election must be about Wall Street. Because, when Romney says that he has proved his bona fides in business, what he really means is that he made a ton of money on Wall Street – specifically, in private equity.
There are two ways to frame private equity: (1) one of the most creative forces of free-market capitalism, generating growth, wringing out inefficiency, fostering innovation, or (2) unbearable financial leverage, mass layoffs, job outsourcing, and corporate looting. Neither of these depictions is fair or accurate on its own: the “industry” is full of players big and small, with a wide diversity of personalities and approaches. (For a reasonably brief discussion of what private equity is and its current state, you can read this.)
(Fair and important disclosure: I worked with a number of private equity professionals in my former job, and many of them were ethical, hard-working, and dedicated to the success of their portfolio companies. Many of my classmates at Wharton also aspire to careers in private equity, and most of them are not rapacious or soulless.)
I don’t pretend to know whether the work that Romney did at Bain Capital was more Captain America or Captain Kidd. But, in politics, that is largely beside the point. The point is “what can sell.”
To have a fighting chance in this election, the President’s team only viable option is to turn the very name “Romney” into a synonym for corporate malfeasance, for greed, for crony capitalism. If the Obama team succeeds, “to Romney” a company will come to mean “to pounce upon a weakened and struggling family company, rip into its jugular, tear out its guts, disperse its employees like bits of fatty flesh, and leave nothing behind but a looted husk,” preferably on a Superfund site.
My prediction: the ads will feature out-of-work white males, formerly proud workers in manufacturing states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. They will talk about their dignity being crushed by soulless corporate raiders. There will be footage of elderly people – probably veterans – forced to work at Walmart through their erstwhile retirements. There will be shuttered factories. There will be tears. And all of it will be very, very well-funded, much by outside groups not officially connected to the President. (Thanks, Citizens United.)
The airwaves will be full of pieces like the story that NPR ran on Romney in early October, “The 2 Portraits of Mitt Romney.” Says one former steelworker who was laid off during Bain’s closure of plants at GST Steel:
Here’s a guy that just took somebody else’s money and used it to make more money. The guy has never produced a thing in his life. … I made something. We produced something. I drive by the old plant probably once or twice a week, and it’s just — I mean, it chokes you up.
This is how the White House will tie the “flip flopping” charge into a narrative that matches the election’s fact pattern: Mitt Romney will become a Wall Street villain, a capitalist chameleon who believes in nothing but his own interests and the dollar. He will be untrustworthy, not because of Kerry-esque nuance or weakness, but because he is morally bankrupt. As the popularity of Occupy Wall Street has proved , there’s plenty of latent support across the country for this narrative.
Thus, “the Obama economy” might become “the Romney economy.”
My friends, this election is going to be nasty. It’s possible that it will open an important dialogue about the role of Wall Street in the wider economy. But it is more likely to be bitter and ugly. No doubt, the GOP will attack with the same vitriol that we’ve come to expect from them.
This is not my “advice” to the Obama campaign. But, right now, it is what I believe the dynamics of the race make inevitable.