By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
In a few days “undecided” Americans will have the opportunity to watch the first post-nomination presidential debate, in essence the first time that President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney will square off face-to-face on the same stage. There, inside the cavernous Magness Arena at the University of Denver, moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS will guide the candidates through 90 minutes of discussion of domestic policy—from taxes to government spending to Medicare, from jobs to interest rates to housing. (For more about the debates see “Are We Ready For the Debates?” September 18, 2012).
Maybe the whole 47% fiasco is behind us, maybe not. But one thing is certain: despite a couple of days in which major appearances at the United Nations turned the conversation briefly toward foreign policy, the two major presidential candidates are back on the topic of the economy. And that’s as it should be, despite challenger Mitt Romney’s current predicament in the polls and President Obama’s growing lead in several key states.
But the President, regardless of his recent attempts to keep narrative away from the economy, isn’t taking anything for granted—even with the slight favorable surge which formed as the result of the Romney campaign’s missteps—so he campaigns as if the candidates are still locked in a virtual tie.
Though it is no strategic secret for either side, this election may come down to seven states (see "PACs and the Seven Members Club,” July 28, 2012). As always, Florida is one of them, but the others—Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa and Pennsylvania may all prove to be even more pivotal than the Sunshine State. Still, one state may trump the others in terms of clout, and that state is Ohio.
The Buckeye State is so important that President Obama has made nearly 30 campaign appearances there this year alone. Romney has made even more visits. As has been frequently pointed out in the media, no Republican has won the presidency without Ohio. If you are a member of the Party of Lincoln or Reagan and you fall short in Ohio, you lose the election. This is one of those information nuggets that reporters and television analysts love, so much so that such trivia often become the political equivalent of Newtonian physical law.
And with only marginally important “issues” still playing out in the mainstream media (the only thing that finally trumped Romney’s hidden camera remarks on You Tube were all the parodies of the NFL referees), a day in which both candidates barnstormed across the Buckeye State became the central talking point for a thousand journalists with little else to do until next week’s debate in Denver.
After his high point at the end of the GOP Convention in Tampa, Mitt Romney has engaged in truly Herculean efforts to redirect and re-energize his message to one of inclusiveness and economic opportunity, to little effect in the press or recent polls. Further, in the last two weeks he has sometimes found himself trapped by international affairs, especially the visceral and violent events in the Islamic world. When he speaks out, he is accused of pandering or opportunism or both. Meanwhile—perhaps fairly—the President can channel the foreign policy narrative in any direction which suits the momentum and the polls.
This is no historical aberration. Presidential elections across the arc of the 20TH Century often turn on a sudden uptick in interest in world events or international tensions—from Roosevelt’s “destroyers-for-bases” deal with the British in the weeks prior to the election of 1940, to the dangers posed by Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1960 and the effect this tension had on the debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. In the fall of 1972, Democrats and the McGovern campaign accused President Nixon of attempting to manipulate opinion with his widely-watched peace overtures to the North Vietnamese. A famous editorial cartoon by Pat Olyphant showed Nixon on the shoulders of Henry Kissinger waving a sign that said “Peace is at Hand,” with a caption underneath asking “Isn’t that campaigning a little too close to the polls?”
In the final weeks and days before the election of 1980, the campaign teams for both President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan lost countless hours of sleep worrying about an “October Surprise,” with the Carter State Department and backchannel entities working feverishly for the release of the American hostages held in Tehran, and the Reagan team worried that a release—strategically timed—might clinch re-election for Carter. Even to this day there remain unfounded rumors of meddling in the Iranian crisis by both sides.
Fast-forward to early this very week: President Obama addresses the United Nations, stressing in clear language that a nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat to the greater Middle East, and vowing to intensify the pressure both economically and militarily. Glowering grimly from their seats in the General Assembly, the Iranian diplomats seem unmoved. Within hours, Iranian officials discuss their vision for what they call a “new world order,” with Iran the presumed dominant force in geo-politics in the region and a singular threat to its neighbors—most especially Israel.
Romney, campaigning in Ohio and Pennsylvania, is forced to play defense again, attempting to keep his message of jobs growth and economic process resonant even as attention turns to the speeches at the U.N. and the possibility of a belligerent Iran.
Indeed, there are striking parallels between today and 1980. Despite the tensions and pressures regarding the American hostages being held in Iran 32 years ago, the final wedge for undecided voters was the economy—the card which generally trumps all others.
This means that during Wednesday’s debate Mitt Romney has an opportunity to put his campaign’s message back on track. A recent flurry of partisan conversation in the mainstream press (as a journalist at my core, I’ve always been leery of the phrase “liberal media,” but in the past few weeks some reporters have revealed themselves as highly pre-disposed toward the President’s re-election) has attempted to re-define what’s important in this election: it’s not about jobs nor economic rebirth any more—instead it’s about social issues or abortion rights or marriage rights or immigration. Newsweek’s October 1 cover story, by Andrew Sullivan, calls Obama “The Reagan’s Democrat,” which would be true except that Bill Clinton already claims that title. Similar recent pieces on CBS News and CNN also indicate a desire by many in the media to shift the goal post as far away from the economy as possible.
The implication is that Obama’s work on the economy is done—at least as far as humanly possible considering the mess he inherited. This is, of course, a fundamental cop out. Reagan inherited much worse—an economy still smoldering after a full decade of stagnation, shortages, a flat-lined market, brutal inflation, multiple cycles of deep recession, high levels of unemployment, and oil embargoes that make today’s gas price shocks seem laughable. By the end of Reagan’s first term much of those 70s pathologies had been purged, and the beast of inflation slain. Reagan easily won re-election in 1984 in a staggering landslide.
Indeed, save for the mild recession on George H.W. Bush’s watch, Reagan’s economic turnaround propelled growth and stability and middle class expansion well into the 1990s. Bill Clinton’s more rightful claim to being the “Democrat’s Reagan” is rooted in Clinton’s fusion of two basic elements—a successful stewardship of the economy set in motion by Reagan, coupled with Clinton’s most important achievement, a balanced budget and eventual budget surplus.
Obama has made only a fraction of this same forward progress, with budget deficits hugely out of proportion to his projections, much lower market growth than predicted, and unemployment hovering persistently near 9.5%.
In Wednesday’s debate, Romney can and will make the core argument already being widely deployed: that President Obama has had his chance to fix this economy but has failed. The question of are you better off than you were four years ago has been repeated often, paraphrased and abused, and has been used frequently in ads by both candidates—the pro-Romney ads telling us we are decidedly not better off, the pro-Obama ads making the case that we are in better shape.
Wednesday in Denver both candidates will have a chance—without using the filter of expensive, slick television advertising—to address, frame, and hopefully answer, Reagan’s famous question to undecided voters.
Related Thursday Review articles:
“Are We Ready For the Debates?” September 18, 2012.
“Real Issues Versus the Silly Season.” September 20, 2012.
“The Big 80s are Back…and With a Vengeance.” September 8, 2012.
“Romney: Are You Better Off Now Than You Were Four Years Ago?” August 31, 2012 (filed from Tampa, Florida).