Political Animal


August 23, 2012 3:53 PM Running On One’s Record, in 2000 and Now

By Ed Kilgore

In another Sneak Preview from the upcoming September/October issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris’ Editor’s Note offers a fascinating past-and-present discussion of presidential candidates reluctant to run on their own accomplishments. Part of it involves Paul’s personal reminiscences as a White House speechwriter in 2000 witnessing with alarm Al Gore’s unwillingness or inability to find a way to boast of his own administration’s accomplishments while distancing himself from the Lewinsky Scandal. He believes (as do I) that this strategic error contributed greatly (along, obviously, with a big assist from the U.S. Supreme Court) to the unfortunate phenomenon of the George W. Bush presidency. I’ll probably write more about that history later, perhaps in conjunction with Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention.

But the other thrust of Paul’s column focuses on the strange fact that we are in the midst of a presidential contest in which neither major-party candidate is talking a lot about his own policy record.

In the case of Mitt Romney, the explanation is pretty obvious: from practically the moment he left office as Governor of Massachusetts and set his site on the White House, he’s been running away from the positions he took in the Bay State—but not as fast as his national party has run away from the moderate conservatism and bipartisanship he generally embraced. An absolute condition precedent to his nomination this year was Romney’s repudiation of his own past self—especially his health reform legislation—and given his history of flip-flopping and the low levels of trust conservatives have in him to begin with, it was never really an option for him to “rediscover” his gubernatorial record for use in the general election. Initially, moreover, his campaign thought they’d be able to make the general election strictly “about” the incumbent’s record, crossing the threshold of credibility as an alternative to Obama with little more than an invocation of his success as a management consultant and as alleged savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics. It’s telling that even though that strategy has largely failed, Team Mitt is opting for a savage ideological campaign based on attacking things Obama never really did, instead of relying on any positive message about himself or his past.

But Obama’s the candidate who has had to make a lot of truly tough decisions about what to say about his first-term accomplishments. And Paul believes he’s underselling himself unnecessarily:

The truth is, no president could have quickly turned around an economy as badly damaged as this one was in 2009. History shows that recessions caused by financial crisis always take years to heal, and while Obama’s stimulus prevented a depression, it was nowhere near big enough to make up for the loss of demand caused by a 40 percent drop in the average American’s net worth. But as Michael Grunwald explains in his new book, The New New Deal, the administration used the stimulus to make investments and spur change in everything from green energy to medical research to public schools. These and other big moves during Obama’s first term, like the health care and financial reforms laws, have the potential to pay substantial economic dividends in coming years. Obama needs to tell the story of these accomplishments and how transformative they could be.

It’s always been very difficult for Obama to achieve the credit he is due for keeping the Great Recession from becoming the Great Depression Redux—it’s hard to prove negatives—and gets harder as memories of the fear and panic of those days before and immediately after he took office start to fade. But though he can’t campaign nearly as much on “tangible results” as Gore might have in 2000, he can make an entirely plausible if somewhat subtle case that he is putting in place the building blocks for a strong recovery that will get rid of the distortions, the inequality, and the under- regulation that fed the Great Recession and the period of middle-class economic struggles preceding it—while making the comparative case that Romney and a Republican Congress will tear those building blocks apart and make today’s suffering permanent.

If he can do that, then as Glastris suggests, there’s a potentially receptive audience:

A message about long-term payoffs might not seem like one today’s hard-pressed voters want to hear. But as James Carville and Stan Greenberg argue in their campaign book, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid, swing voters don’t believe that happy days are just over the horizon. They know that the economy, and their place in it, is in a precarious state that is years in the making and will take years to get out of. If Obama can find a way to talk to them honestly about what he’s already done as president, they might give him a chance to keep doing it.
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.


  • c u n d gulag on August 23, 2012 4:23 PM:

    President Obama DID accomplish a lot - especially in the first two years.

    And he did it despite the Republicans working to do as much harm as possible to his Presidency and the Democrats. From DAY!

    He feels he has to be cautious about his accomplishments.

    The GOP and Frank Luntz, and a cowardly, compliant, and complicit MSM, will there to try to spin any and every accomplishment in as negative light as possible.

    If the MSM could be counted on for some true objectivity, then he would.

    But when you have a highly-paid, professional Conservative sycophant like David Brooks, covering for the Republican Party by saying that no one should judge Paul Ryan and his heartless policies unless they've met him, and know him like he does, would YOU trust the MSM?

    And this reprehensible clown works for the "Liberal" NY Times!

    Ok, Brooksi, if I can't judge him if I haven't met him, then I shouldn't vote for him either - right?

    Tell Ryan to be at my house 2pm tomorrow.

  • Mitch on August 23, 2012 4:25 PM:

    As the GOP has shown again and again, it is not important to run on one's record. It is easily as successful to run against your opponents failings.

    In this case, is it too hard to point out (ad nauseum) that the GOP's platform of Tax Cuts (for the super-rich only of course), deregulation and austerity does not work. Never has worked. And is very much responsible for the rough state of the economy.

    Is it that hard to remind people that the "Job Creators" are paying lower taxes than at any time since before the Great Depression? Or that they have a larger share of the money in America than ever?

    Yet they don't seem to be all that interested in, you know, Creating Jobs. If the Trickle Down Hypothesis were correct, then the economy would be booming. Period.

    Is it that hard to point out that the GOP has spent the past four years blocking everything that they can?

    The GOP does not win by harping their own achievements. They don't have any to boast about. The last three Republican Presidents all ran up deficits that would have people calling for Obama's blood (more than they already do) were he to do it.

    It's not going negative if it's the truth. Most people are unaware of any of this. The media sure isn't going to educate people. But if Dems list the facts again and again and again, it may eventually sink it.

  • Peter C on August 23, 2012 4:29 PM:

    From be beginning of his presidency, the Republicans have made sabotaging the recovery their primary objective. As McConnell said, "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president". No sooner than the stimulus passed did they start saying it had failed. They squadered the aid to states with corporate tax cuts, and instead attacked public employee unions. They cancelled large stimulus projects like the ARC tunnel and high-speed rail. They filibustered every non-reconcilliation initiative for the first two years and ignored every initiative since they gained the house. They've played chicken with the debt ceiling thereby triggering a credit-rating downgrade.

    They knew that we were in for economic pain and they actively magnified that pain for political gain.

  • Davis X. Machina on August 23, 2012 4:56 PM:

    I can see why the Obama camp doesn't bother running on its record -- the last, final, and only thing the left and the right in this country can agree on is how awful it is.

    Drones! Death Panels! He wouldn't appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the CFPB! He wouldn't appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the CFPB!

    Under those circumstances, why bother?

  • John on August 23, 2012 4:59 PM:

    If by "left" you mean "self-identified Democrats," that's not really true at all.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on August 23, 2012 5:04 PM:

    Peter C is on the right track. I've always thought that Obama has erred by not laying more groundwork for the narrative of Republican Congressional sabotage.

    I suppose he figures under Marshall's Bitch-Slap Theory (the name makes me wince) that blaming the other guy means you've already lost. I reject that, because Obama is so talented at communicating optimism that I think he can tell the story.

    It may not be necessary, indeed may end up being risky, to develop this narrative to retain the Presidency. Romney is so terrible that a low-risk, low-variance strategy may do the trick. However, it forfeits a chance to try to make headway in attaining a Democratic Congress. "We're making positive change, but we need help in Congress" is a great message that I don't think anyone is really delivering.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on August 23, 2012 5:09 PM:

    Ah, and recall that for a long time the media treated the sabotage issue with kid gloves. Surely no one, the thinking went, could seriously believe that an entire major party in Congress was trying to wreck the economy! Then a funny thing happened: When the topic was finally polled, it seemed the public had long since come to the conclusion, without the help of the media or of public pronouncements by Democrats, that Republicans really were that brazen.

  • anongal on August 23, 2012 5:18 PM:

    Michael Grunwald has been on several news shows and articulately states the case for the successes of President Obama. Additionally, Mike is gifted, likeable and comes across as very sincere and honest.

    There are so many issues with Republicans. The medicare talk alone has been strangling the Ryan-Romney ticket and there is time to educate voters on the very drastic implications of a Romney victory.

    And the story will not die on Todd Aiken.
    Women are just horrified --and the ties to Todd Aiken and Paul Ryan are undeniable. And--I think it is significant that the doctor quoted by Aiken is absolutely tied to Romney.
    Here are the doctor's own words:

    Dr Willke (the one with bizarre views of women's ladyparts shutting down pregancies during rapes) reported to The Daily Telegraph that he did meet Mitt Romney during a presidential primary campaign stop in the doctor's home city of Cincinnati, Ohio, in October 2011. Local news reports at the time made note that the candidate held "private meetings" during that visit.
    “He(Romney) told me (Willke) "thank you for your support – we agree on almost everything, and if I am elected President I will make some major pro-life pronouncements", Dr Willke said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
    >>WE AGREE ON ALMOST EVERYTHING, the doctor says of he and Mitt Romney>>
    The ties that bind.
    I saw some profound comments online--
    "It's astounding that the party so anxious for unwanted children to be born is so willing to yank out the safety net 9 months later."
    and "How does the state forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy caused by rape to full term have anything to do with limited government?"


  • jjm on August 23, 2012 5:40 PM:

    To @Davis. X Machina. WRONG!

    Read Michael Grunwald's book The New New Deal and then say this. But I do believe you are joshing us.

    Conservatives have concocted a lot of things for pseudo liberals to complain about, and that they were the source and cause of.

  • Dodgewatcher on August 23, 2012 5:42 PM:

    Look here: Mitt Romney, ever the dodger, ever the primadonna, has a stipulation that the television interviewer not question him on Todd Aiken or on abortion:

    Reporter: “And political specialist Shaun Boyd just finished an interview with Romney, just literally a couple of minutes ago. Shaun’s with me now. And Shaun, you were one of only four local reporters to get to talk to him. And, what did you ask him?”
    Reporter Shaun Boyd: “You know, I had about five minutes with him, and we got through a fair amount of material, actually, in that five minutes. The one stipulation to the interview was that I not ask him about abortion or Todd Akin – he’s the Missouri Republican who created a firestorm after saying women’s shut down in a legitimate rape to prevent pregnancy. I did ask him about health care, the female vote, and energy.”
    (Dkos, 8/23)

  • exlibra on August 23, 2012 6:30 PM:

    Maybe his grandma taught him that it's unbecoming to brag about one's own accomplishments? One waits *for others* to praise such, which has an added advantage of also carrying more weight.

    At least, that's what my Mother -- about the same age and generation as Obama's grandmother -- pounded in my head when I was a child. The result is that, to this day -- and I'm now nearly 63 -- it's almost impossible for me to say things like "I was an effective teacher" rather than "I taught", and, to this day, I cringe when I see braggarts strutting.

  • rover27 on August 23, 2012 6:59 PM:

    @David X. Machina

    I've seen your posts on other sites. One thing I like about them is your sunny optimism:)

  • labman57 on August 23, 2012 8:29 PM:

    Team Romney suffers from the same weakness as do Palin, Bachmann, Santorum, Cain, and other gutless political lightweights:

    Mitt regards any reporter or interviewer who has the temerity to hold him accountable for his previously stated positions to be a bullying, biased member of a left-wing conspiracy, and he views any question for which he is unwilling or unable to provide an honest, substantive question to be a "gotcha" question.

    In short, Romney and his campaign staff feel that members of the news media should act as though they are working for his public relations department, only asking him the questions that he WANTS to be asked.

    It's curious. Romney says that he is highly qualified to be POTUS based on his extensive experience as a "job creator" and fiscal manager while at Bain ... however we should not be allowed to analyze or critique said business experience, nor his ethics and values with respect to taxation policies.

    Mitt to news media and Obama campaign:
    "Don't discuss my personal finances, my business practices, my recent overseas trip, the socially conservative policies and legislative proposals of my running mate, and most of all, don't discuss my own policies and programs while Governor of Massachusetts."

    Okay, let's talk about something totally benign ... "Mitt, how's Seamus? What? Don't talk about the dog either?"

  • LosGatosCA on August 24, 2012 8:30 AM:

    Haven't read the book so I can't comment on the thesis or the supporting arguments presented within in it.

    It's clear to me that Obama is not nearly as skilled a political operator as his reputation suggested and way less effective at governing than he could have been.

    By endorsing "the deficit is a problem " theme he's hamstrung his own ability to sell his accomplishments, since what was needed (and what little he supplied) during his first term was in direct contradiction to that theme. He sacrificed his ability to deliver real change in his first term by delaying health care implementation until 2014, he sacrificed his ability to use Republican obstructionism by acknowledging the legitimacy of their concern of increasing the national debt, and he played into their hands by thinking and acting as though their extreme partisanship could be negotiated away by being patient and reasonable when the times called for much more urgency and pushing for more stimulus related, more short term impactful agenda items.

    It cost the Democrats the 2010 election and it may still cost them the 2012 election. If the 2012 election is not lost it will only be due to Republican self-destruction through their extreme social positions (see Todd Akin) and their extreme taxation policy positions (see Rmoney tax returns, Ryan bills impact on Rmoney tax rate).

    Obama has to run a defensive campaign (I.e. Negative on Rmoney) because he has no theme that supports his accomplishments which he has sacrificed on the alter of deficit cutting seriousness. He's misplayed a very hard hand he was dealt but he may still narrowly win the pot through a weak bluff and his opponent folding his own hand, prematurely.

    If Obama wins he'll be a substantially weaker president in his second term than he was in his first term even if the retain the Senate by some miracle and flip the House to a one vote majority. Basically, it will be a stalemate or less for the next four years followed by the Republicans narrowly sweeping in 2016 (barring complete self-immolation, which is always a possibility for the conservative Republican TeaBaggers).