2012 is an unusual election year. Some elections revolve around a single issue: 1860 was about slavery, 1932 about the Depression. 2002 (and to a lesser extent 2004) was about terrorism. 2006 was about the Iraq War. 2010 was about rising government spending and debt.
Some elections, particularly re-elections of incumbent presidents, are ratifications of a general direction, like Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign from 1984 or the Democratic landslides of 1964 and 1936.
There’s always a chance that an emergency will take over an election. No matter what anybody had planned in 2008, everything changed when the economy started collapsing in late September. Obama probably would have won anyway, but the election turned into a landslide because the country wanted a calm voice and a steady hand. McCain’s “maverick” image was suddenly exactly wrong.
Barring an emergency, 2012 is about a mood: anxiety.
Obviously, President Obama can’t run a ratification campaign in a year when there is a large and growing sense that the country is on the wrong track. But at the same time, this isn’t an issue election. Unemployment, inequality, debt, corruption, national security, health care, climate change, moral decay, and so on are all serious concerns for many voters, but in 2012 they are mainly screens onto which to project a much more diffuse fear that our country is broken — that whatever the issue, we are no longer capable even of grappling with it, much less solving it.
By its nature, anxiety is full of contradictory impulses: Any program that isn’t radical seems like re-arranging the Titanic’s deck chairs, but any particular radical change seems like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. We want a hero to ride in and save us, and yet we are cynical about heroes on horseback. We look back fondly to a brighter, more confident era, and yet we resonate with Jack Burden’s cynical challenge to a nostalgic Anne Stanton in the classic political novel All the King’s Men:
What you mean is that it was a fine, beautiful time back then, but I mean that if it was such a God-damned fine, beautiful time, why did it turn into this time which is not so damned fine and beautiful if there wasn’t something in that time which wasn’t fine and beautiful? Answer that one.
Parties. An anxiety election is an opportunity for the party out of power, but which party is that?
A Democrat is president, but Republicans control the House and have the Senate blocked up with filibusters. An activist Republican majority on the Supreme Court keeps inventing new rights for corporations. Several swing states went Republican in 2010, and the radical programs of the new governors are wildly unpopular.
What makes Americans most anxious is that no one seems to have power. We spent the summer agonizing about the debt ceiling and how to lower the deficit, but in the end that issue got punted to the so-called supercommittee, which deadlocked. Neither party can force its view on the other, yet attempts to compromise also fail.
The Republican presidential opportunity. The challenger has an advantage in an anxiety election, but seizing that advantage requires threading a needle. You have to be on both sides of several contradictions: You are an outsider, but you are experienced; you’re a scrapper who will do whatever it takes to win, but you don’t fight dirty; you’re uncompromising but not rigid; principled but pragmatic; radical but not dangerous; able to get something done in Washington, but not willing to play the old game.
A Republican wins the presidency in November if he (we’ll ignore Michele Bachmann) represents Do Something Different and makes Obama represent Keep Doing What We’re Doing. That vague referendum would be a landslide for Do Something Different.
So the ideal Republican message would create the illusion of specificity without actually being specific. It could embrace a subtly self-contradictory slogan (like Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” from 2000) and embody vague themes (like the Hope and Change of Obama’s 2008 campaign). The perfect message would resemble Nixon’s in 1968: He confidently claimed to have a plan to get us out of Vietnam, but had reasons for not revealing its details.
That’s basically what worked in 2010: Republicans promised to “cut spending” without saying which spending. They implied that the federal budget was full of bridges-to-nowhere that could be eliminated without hurting anybody, but didn’t have to identify them.
Unfortunately for Republican candidates, that perfect November message flops completely in the primaries. The party is firmly in the hands of its radical base, to whom even the Republican establishment represents Keep Doing What We’re Doing.
The base is afraid of compromise and wants to nail candidates down on specifics. So it’s not enough to endorse a theme like traditional American values; a candidate has to oppose same-sex marriage and gays in the military. He can’t just be religious, he has to be a strong Christian who wants kids in the public schools to pray and learn creationism. Environmental pragmatism and balancing short-term economic interests against long-term environmental harm — that’s not good enough. The candidate must promise to abolish the EPA and agree that climate change is a scam.
Social Security and Medicare are so complicated that they are perfect for a Nixonian I-have-a-plan claim, but even Mitt Romney has been driven to endorse Paul Ryan’s voucher system for Medicare.
The Republican base is showing its own symptoms of anxiety. Again and again they have jumped at the vague idea of a hero on horseback, but then been disappointed when they tore into the details of the person and the plan. As long as Rick Perry was “the Jobs Governor” or Herman Cain was an inspirational biography plus a 9-9-9 plan, they rode high. Closer inspection has been fatal to both.
How Obama Can Win. Obama’s calm manner is well suited to an anxiety election, but it won’t be enough, even if his opponent looks scary. Even a radical challenger (like Reagan) could win in a year with a big wrong-path majority (like 1980).
Usually, though, an incumbent president facing a big wrong-path majority also faces a damaging primary campaign, like Carter’s against Ted Kennedy in 1980 or Johnson’s against Gene McCarthy in 1968. But not this year. The Left hasn’t been happy with Obama (see my own Barack, Can We Talk?), but after seeing the Tea Party governors like Scott Walker, few liberals are willing to risk helping the Republicans win the presidency.
Ditto for liberal third-party challengers like Nader in 2000 or Henry Wallace in 1948. Even those of us who lament the corrupting influence of Goldman Sachs or how many War-on-Terror abuses Obama has ratified — we can’t claim that it makes no difference which party wins.
So even if the Left is not happy, it will be united and even motivated in the fall.
Assuming a less-than-perfect Republican challenger, Obama’s winning message has these pieces.
1. I’ve done more than you think. The model here is an op-ed in Tuesday’s LA Times, in which a woman apologizes to President Obama for turning against him.
I’m sorry I didn’t do enough of my own research to find out what promises the president has made good on. I’m sorry I didn’t realize that he really has stood up for me and my family, and for so many others like us.
The reason? She was diagnosed with breast cancer and discovered that the Affordable Care Act makes it possible for her to get health insurance. Pre-ACA, she would have been uninsurable and might well have lost everything.
For decades, health care has been like the weather — everybody talked about it, but nobody succeeded in doing anything. You could wish for more or better than the ACA, but against the alternative of continuing to do nothing (and all the Republican proposals amount to doing nothing), ObamaCare looks pretty good. Voters may have hated the horse-trading process of passing the ACA, but they will love the personal stories of the people it is already helping.
In foreign policy, Obama ended our combat mission in Iraq and finally nailed Osama bin Laden. He helped the Libyans overthrow Gaddafi on their own and didn’t involve us in another Iraq-style mess. The trump card of Bush defenders was always to say, “He kept us safe” after 9-11. Well, we’ve been equally safe under Obama.
Obama gets his lowest marks on the economy, but even there he looks good if you remember just how bad things were when he took office. Expect to see more of this graph:
2. I’m on your side. Preventing big cuts in Social Security and Medicare, wanting to raise taxes on millionaires — people support that stuff. It’s going to help a lot that swing states like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida have seen how Republican governors grind down the working class and favor the wealthy.
3. You like me. Even surveys that show a low job-approval rating show that people like Obama personally. The Republican base — the folks who forward emails about his Kenyan birth and his Muslim faith — want to see red-meat attacks against him. But swing voters don’t.
4. I’m running against Congress. This was the Truman strategy in 1948. Obama’s approval ratings hover in the 40s, but Congress’ are in the teens. And if voters blame Congressional Republicans for the gridlock in Washington, then Obama becomes the do-something-different candidate.
5. My plans are better than their plans. This is where the Republican’s nomination battle is going to work against them. If Obama can make the Republican candidate stand for the specific policies he endorsed to get nominated, rather than Do Something Different, he’ll win.
A lot of moderates who aren’t usually single-issue voters will discover that certain Republican positions are deal-breakers. Can you really vote for a candidate who wants to do nothing about global warming? Or roll back gay rights that already exist and don’t seem to be hurting anybody? Or take away collective bargaining rights? Undo child labor laws? Automatically treat Hispanics or Muslims like suspects? Define a fertilized ovum as a person, which turns a doctor-patient discussion of abortion into a murder conspiracy? Or privatize Social Security and replace Medicare with a voucher program?
How far do they go? A lot hinges on how long the Republican nomination stays in doubt, and how far right the nominee has to go. Their ideal winning scenario — that an early consensus would form around a candidate with an ambiguous record like Romney’s — is already not happening. If candidates are still competing for Tea Party votes in April and May, they’ll have a hard time coming back to get moderate votes in November.