Political Animal


April 13, 2012 12:23 PM Elections Are a Choice of Candidates

By Ed Kilgore

If the title of this post seems a bit self-evident, that is deliberate. It serves as a reminder that no matter how badly Republicans want to make the election of 2012 a simple up-or-down referendum on the happiness of Americans with life since the beginning of 2009, they cannot entirely evade responsibility their own records, agenda and candidates.

Lord knows they seem to want to. Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard, one of the more reasonable and empirically-oriented Republican analysts, did a column today where he in essence stamps his foot and demands that Barack Obama stop drawing attention to the GOP and to Mitt Romney. It’s really almost funny:

Typically, successful reelection campaigns - e.g. 1936, 1956, 1972, 1984, and 1996 - have been based on narratives about how the country has turned a corner, thanks to the incumbent’s greatness. Think “Nixon’s The One!” “It’s Morning In America” or “Bridge To The 21st Century.” None of that applies to President Obama, who instead looks to tar Mitt Romney as the evil stepchild of J.P. Morgan and Barry Goldwater….
This, put simply, is Barack Obama’s problem. If the 2012 election is framed on “are you better off than you were four years ago?,” then he is going to lose. His record on the economy, the deficit, energy policy, and health care are all very unpopular.
So, Obama’s objective is to get the country to think about other things. In particular, he has of late employed a series of gimmicks to induce the country to conceive of Mitt Romney in the above terms. The whole “war on women” is exactly along those lines, as is the Buffett Rule. Both speak to the core strategy - Romney is a conservative radical and tool of big business who wants to deprive women of birth control and help only the rich get richer.

Put aside the obvious quibbles with Jay’s characterization of every successful re-election as being the product of sunny, positive messages that ignore the opposition (Nixon ‘72, Clinton ‘96, Bush ‘04 obviously involved a lot of negative or “comparative” campaigning). More fundamentally, when you go to the polls, you are not going to be handed a ballot offering you an up-or-down vote on whether you think America is in better shape than it was four years ago. Of course incumbents are greatly affected by perceptions of their performance; it probably is the single most important factor affecting the outcome of the election, and if the economy just plain out tanks between now and November, we are likely looking down the long barrel of a Romney administration.

But the incumbent’s record is not the only factor, and it’s increasingly ridiculous to hear Republicans complain that Obama needs to just take his medicine and not try to confuse voters with information about the opposition. If they wanted a pure “referendum” election, they should have themselves performed a bit better during their last period in power, and should not have spent most of the Obama administration indulging themselves in an ideological bender that makes references to J.P. Morgan and Barry Goldwater all too credible.

In his determination to rule out the possibility that Obama’s reelection strategy could work, Cost even goes so far as to tell swing voters what they have to care about:

I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the average swing voter does not want to talk about the “war on women,” the Buffett rule, or whatever else Team Obama is going to throw out there in the weeks and months to come. That voter wants to talk about jobs, the economy, the deficit, gas prices, the health care bill—in other words, all the issues where the president is vulnerable.

While I don’t know for sure what the mood of swing voters—defined, as Ruy Teixeira has recently explained, as all persuadable voters, not just some predefined class of center-right self-identified independents—is going to be this fall. But you know what? Neither does Jay Cost, much less Karl Rove, whose tirade against Obama’s comparative campaigning begins Jay’s column. Seeking to shape the perceptions of persuadable voters about the choices involved in an election is the primary task of political campaigns. And it’s absurd to expect the Obama campaign to just throw in the towel from the get-go.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Lifelong Dem on April 13, 2012 12:37 PM:

    Did Jay Cost actually pay attention to the 2004 campaign?

  • T2 on April 13, 2012 12:39 PM:

    this guy Cost, like most other GOP mouthpieces, is a liar. He lies, they all lie, because the truth kills their candidate and Party. No, Cost, Obama's policies are not "very" unpopular. Poll after poll show that in fact it is the GOP's policies that are unpopular.
    Poll after poll show George W. Bush, a Republican, is still seen as the cause of our economic problems and any chart you can find shows that indeed we are better after four years of Obama than we were after eight years of Bush.
    But of course Cost and his co-conspirators can't say that, won't say that, and politically speaking, shouldn't say that. So they make stuff up. Cost can't say "the Republican House and Senate minority have stymied each and every proposal that would help the economy, the energy issue and pretty much every thing else". So he makes up stuff that says the opposite of reality. That is the Karl Rove Republican Way of politics. If all you can point to is gas prices....you point to gas prices and hope to hell they don't drop.

  • Steve on April 13, 2012 12:39 PM:

    Then there was LBJ's cheerful '64 reelection campaign, featuring happy images of little girls playing in fields.

  • dalloway on April 13, 2012 12:41 PM:

    Of course this is an attempt at psych-out and I'd be surprised if the people who came up with that drivel believe it. If the election is a reaction to the supposedly horrible economy, then any sentient voter is going to ask the opposition candidate one simple question: how are you going to fix it? The best thing Obama has going for him is Mitt Romney's answer to that question.

  • Walker on April 13, 2012 12:45 PM:

    This 2012. We can recognize (and ignore) concern trolls when we see them.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on April 13, 2012 12:46 PM:

    I'm trying to understand the point of concern trolling like this Jay Cost stuff. They obviously don't think Obama's going to suddenly realize he's being unfair and stop campaigning against them. I'd imagine it's more a matter of setting the narrative and hoping the media is stupid enough to buy into, "Republicans claim Obama unfairly changes subject; Democrats disagree." Given the media's track record, i'd say it's worth taking a flyer to see if it sticks.

  • Ron Byers on April 13, 2012 12:47 PM:

    "Itís absurd to expect the Obama campaign to just throw in the towel from the get-go."

  • Ron Byers on April 13, 2012 12:49 PM:

    Wow, what happened to the rest of my post?

    I went on to say that Republicans expect Obama to throw in the towel because that is the only way they can win.

  • Mitt's Magic Underpants on April 13, 2012 12:49 PM:

    If the shoe was on the other food, the other campaign would use this quote over and over: "Romney is a conservative radical and tool of big business who wants to deprive women of birth control and help only the rich get richer."

  • Tom Hilton on April 13, 2012 12:53 PM:

    Add '64 to your negative list. The Daisy ad was hardly sunny & positive...

  • g on April 13, 2012 12:53 PM:

    It's all part and parcel of the Republican theme that somehow it's wrong for President Obama to actually campaign.

  • Tom Q on April 13, 2012 12:53 PM:

    While I agree with most of this, I think Ed buys a little too much into the idea that Obama would be a goner if this election were 100% a referendum -- a proposition with which I disagree.

    Obama is, in fact, very near the situation in which Reagan ran in '84: he'd experienced a deep recession during the first years of his term, which rocketed unemployment over 10%, but saw significant improvement as the election approached. Today's unemployment rate (8.2%) is not all that far off what Reagan had in late '84 (7.5%), and that was frickin' morning in America. (Plus I think this year's number will decline further by November)

    To repeat: yes, make sure the comparison stays alive. But don't poor-mouth Obama's record. He's got a very re-electable one.

  • K Wilson on April 13, 2012 1:01 PM:

    "That voter wants to talk about jobs, the economy, the deficit, gas prices, the health care bill . . "

    Maybe so. On those issues, there is also a choice of candidates, a choice of philosophies, and most important, a choice of probable courses of action. Presidents running for a second term are evaluated on their performance, but also in comparison to their opponent, and the proportion of each depends on what both of them do. Mr. Obama certainly can't run on "Things are great; why mess with success?", but the ever-increasing extremism of the Republican party is starting to be noticed by the public, even by those who don't pay much attention to politics. Recent events have only made this worse - I mean, really, birth control? In 2012??

    The farther-right-than-thou feedback loop driving the Republican descent into madness is very good for Mr. Obama. Mr. Romney now has to convince swing voters he's neither an extremist culture warrior nor a plutocrat, after doing his best to impersonate one during the primaries. Making the election a choice rather than a referendum is far easier when one's opponent is waving an axe, foaming at the mouth, and ranting about how Genghis Khan was a RINO wimp, even if he's only faking it. Paul Ryan's budget is almost that bad, and he's not pretending.

  • Skip on April 13, 2012 1:02 PM:

    He seems not to address the fact that there's been a war on Obama since he stepped foot in the White House, that if the reporting and discussion about this president's efforts on behalf of Americans had even the remotest adherence to Fair and Balanced, perhaps all his policies wouldn't be so "unpopular' with the public. Here in AL alone, we've been force fed a continual pap of negativity and discredit of Obama no matter what the man does, all from Clear Channel and News Corps outlets and even some from NPR.

    Republicans have engineered a political infrastructure particularly favorable to them, with corrupted media, redistricting, electoral machinations, and lies upon lies denouncing the competition, but yet they are still struggling to win. No wonder this guy is whining and complaining. By now, the whole GOP establishment must be wondering what else it can corrupt before the Rovian dream can finally be realized and another good republic is felled to oligarchy and single party rule.

    All for nothing more than greed.

  • j on April 13, 2012 1:05 PM:

    Romney has now been endorsed by the anti-choice groups, my my, wonder how he will squirm when asked about womens right to choose.

  • Pam K on April 13, 2012 1:06 PM:

    I am actually better off now than 4 years ago. My portfolio is stronger and more stable, I got a sweet tax break for my daughter's college tuition, and she can stay on my insurance until she is 26. So, to me, if republicans want to go that route, let them.

  • jjm on April 13, 2012 1:08 PM:

    This Cost guy is just one in a long string of 'pundits,' 'analysts' and 'strategists' who have been 'advising' Obama and the Democrats on what they should be doing. Even supposedly neutral pundits on liberal MSNBC like Howard Fineman have sat around for years saying, "What Obama should do..."

    I don't see Obama's 7pt lead over Romney as resulting from the fact that he did things not to pundits' liking, but to the fact that he DIDN'T TAKE THEIR ADVICE.

    Besides, on 'swing voters,' Maddow had great charts recently showing that on all the issues Cost mentions, they prefer Obama over Romney by significant amounts.

  • schtick on April 13, 2012 1:11 PM:

    The tealiban is never negative in their campaigns. I mean, just look at the debates. They all have such great records to run on, too. Just look at all the great stuff they've tried to do and those nasty dimwit dems have prevented them.
    Gawd I even feel dirty thinking that, nevermind writing it.

  • stinger on April 13, 2012 1:23 PM:

    I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that the average swing voter, who is quite likely to be a woman, DOES want to talk about the Republicans' war on women. And as she is far more likely to be a secretary than a millionaire, she wants to talk about the Buffett rule, too.

  • Rabbler on April 13, 2012 1:42 PM:

    I wonder what percentage of Benen's work at WM could be considered concern trollery for Republicans. The only theme that was more common was the craziness of the right and even that was sometimes presented in a concerned way. Just sayin.

  • Gregory on April 13, 2012 2:23 PM:

    much less Karl Rove, whose tirade against Obamaís comparative campaigning begins Jayís column

    Wait, what?!

  • Another Steve on April 13, 2012 2:33 PM:

    Contrary to what Reagan somehow led us to believe, the President's job description isn't "make a bare majority of voters feel like they're better off than they were four years ago."

    Republicans loaded the country into the backseat of their giant Chrysler Imperial with no seat belts, airbags or headrests, floored the gas and rammed it into a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour (neatly rolling out of the driver's side door before the impact).

    Obama pulled the broken and bloodied bodies out of the back and got them to the E.R. and then went to work on the car. Today, the country is still in rehab and physical therapy after a grueling and painful series of emergency and reconstructive surgeries, full of pins and plates and stitches.

    Now they're saying, "hey, he didn't heal you and that car will never be the same. You're not as well off as you were a nanosecond before we rammed the car into the wall. You must vote for us! The only way to fix this is to load 'er up, get 'er going faster and ram 'er into a harder wall.!"

  • howie on April 13, 2012 7:15 PM:

    It's a small point, but "Nixon's The One" was a 1968 election campaign slogan. In 1972, I only remember adds referring to "THE CLEAREST CHOICE OF THE CENTURY".

  • Pronghorn on April 15, 2012 10:01 AM:

    What is the point of this piece? Politicians and their hacks on both sides continually try to do these things: Suggest to voters that they should focus on this or that...or not focus on that or this; suggest to 'their' candidate that they should do this or not do that; suggest to the opposing candidate that they should do this or not do that. S.O.P.

  • Hank on April 15, 2012 2:59 PM:

    For those who think this election will not be a referendum, they have forgotten the elections of '06 and '08.

    A war-weary populace voted in a Democratic majority to congress in '06. A similar war-weary populace had additional concerns regarding the economy in '08. Obama supposedly had the solutions for both the war and the ailing economy and was elected.

    The chief concerns for this election are, again, the economy, with fuel costs thrown into the mix. Absent a substantial change for the better in either of those issues, a new president will occupy the WH.

  • bluecoolaid on April 15, 2012 4:50 PM:

    Axelrod, Ploufe, Gibbs and Obama all tried to frame the 2010 congressional elections as a choice b/n reasonable democrats vs crazed backwards teaparty extremists, that worked out great for them! biggest congressional landslide by a party in generations, an obvious referendum and rejection of the obama agenda.

    Now Obama in a desperate cling to power, unable to run on his accomplishments, will try to make the election a choice again, given recent history (2010) its not gonna work. Obama now has a record, dems may love most of it, but independents rejected it in 2010 and polling on key issues suggest they will again. Obama is likely to be a one termer.

  • Robyn on April 16, 2012 11:37 AM:

    Most of the posters here don't seem to understand the viewpoints of conservatives or independents. To conservatives and independents, the election will be a referendum on the president's policies. It's that simple.

    The democrats see it differently for obvious reasons. That's fine. They can frame it anyway they want to. But once again, conservatives and independents see it as a referendum and any amount of "no, it isn't" will not change that fact. Talk to a conservative or independent and find out for yourself.