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Published: Sunday, 5/20/2012


Campaign defies conventional analysis


Barack Obama's opponent four years ago was a Republican who repressed his moderate and liberal instincts, who insisted he was a conservative, who seemed to be suffering from a political identity crisis, and who had a sterling resume but a halting campaign style.

His opponent this time can be described … exactly the same way.

So we're familiar with what the Republicans will peddle, though the name at the top of the ticket won't be John McCain but Mitt Romney. The Democrats will try to sell Mr. Obama again.

The story of the 2012 campaign may not be that the characteristics of the Republican nominee have changed. The story may be that the same Democratic nominee is entirely different.

Last time, Mr. Obama was an insurgent. This time, he's an incumbent. Last time, he was an outsider with hardly any experience. This time, he's an insider with a record to defend.

Last time, he ran as a critic of administration economic policy. This time, he is running as the spokesman for administration economic policy. Last time, he pushed to suggest he was like Abraham Lincoln. This time, he is working against the notion he is Jimmy Carter.

Presidents who run for re-election in times of crisis often pave the way to a second term by appealing to public reluctance to make a change in a period of peril. But you won't hear warnings about changing horses from the Democrats this year. Mr. Obama was the kind of nominee who inspired voter loyalty, but he is not the kind of president who does.

Which is why professionals on both sides of the 2012 election are so uneasy. Republicans aren't comfortable with their nominee; Democrats worry that the voters aren't comfortable with theirs.

There hasn't been a re-election battle like this since 1932, when Republicans knew Herbert Hoover was vulnerable and Democrats worried that Franklin Roosevelt was neither ready for, nor up to, the job.

Incumbents such as Hoover often portray their challengers as too inexperienced for the White House. But that argument is peculiarly unsuited this year to Democrats, whose nominee ascended to the White House after only four years in the Senate.

One modern president, Ronald Reagan, managed to remain an outsider even when he was inside the White House. All the rest, including Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, both of whose personal impulses veered against insider Washington, found themselves running for re-election as insiders. In Mr. Carter's case, it didn't work. In Mr. Bush's, it did.

For Mr. Obama, the situation is more complex. As a black president, he is by definition an outsider. In his memoir, he spoke eloquently of knowing "how to live as an outsider."

But this year, Mr. Obama has relentlessly portrayed himself as a presidential insider, with insider knowledge and insider perspective, if not with an insider personality.

Mr. Romney, the son of a governor, corporate executive, and Cabinet member, is a natural insider, even a born insider. But in this election, he will be the outsider.

That's not the only unusual thing about his profile as he looks toward November.

Mr. Romney is all but certain to lose his own state. So popular is Mr. Obama in Massachusetts that Democratic Senate nominee Elizabeth Warren's television commercials prominently feature the President, something you will not see everywhere, or maybe even anywhere, else.

There are scores of scenarios for the fall election, but one that seems stubbornly persistent focuses on a state that held the balance of power in the contentious election of 2000: Florida.

Past performance, as Wall Street financiers often say, is no indicator of future returns. But if the Democrats carry the states that have become reliably Democratic in recent elections, they would need only Florida to win the 270 electoral votes required to keep the White House.

Yet consider three important indicators: Florida's job growth in the past year, 1.24 percent, is precisely at the national average. Florida's unemployment rate, 9 percent, is higher than the national average of 8.1 percent.

And the latest Quinnipiac University poll shows the two presidential contenders in a virtual dead heat in the state: Mr. Romney holds a statistically insignificant lead of 44 percent to 43 percent over Mr. Obama.

That reinforces the notion that this will be a terrifically tight election, the sort that could hinge on a gaffe or an unpredictable remark. Political professionals, who like to control events rather than be vulnerable to them, hate this sort of situation.

It renders doctrines dormant, and it turns politics inside out.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com

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