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Bizarro Politics: The Mommy Problem and the Repolarization of the Major Political Issues

Date posted: Monday, May 7, 2012

The reversal of traditional Republican and Democratic roles.

Photograph via Flickr by Ars Skeptica

Photograph via Flickr by Ars Skeptica

Presidential politics have splash landed on Bizarro World. Democrats want to talk about foreign policy. Republicans want to talk about the economy. Ron Paul’s winning delegates. What on Htrae is going on? Let’s delve in . . .

A wise man once said that every minor political issue during a presidential campaign can be placed into three general categories—or “boxes,” as he called them. The first box is foreign policy and security, the second is the economy, and the third is the random, impertinent trivia that, despite having little to do with the qualifications or merits of a candidate, can still dominate a news cycle when a press corps is desperate enough.

For over a generation, it seemed like each of the two major political parties made its nest in one of those “boxes.” For better or worse, earned or not, the Republicans, since Nixon, were the party of foreign policy. They were tough. They talked a big game. Nixon went to China, and Bush I ordered the first Gulf War. Reagan demanded that Gorbachev tear down that wall, and Bush II warned all terrorists—and those who harbored them—to sleep with one eye open. Most recently, the GOP’s nominee was a Vietnam War hero.

The Democrats, meanwhile, became associated with economic support for poorer Americans while being linked with a weak foreign policy. Johnson championed the “Great Society” but seemed incompetent in Vietnam. Carter’s heart bled for the poor, but he let the Iranians push him around and the Soviets push into Afghanistan. Clinton felt the pain of America, balanced the budget, and managed flush economic times, but badly bungled Somalia, consequently acted slowly in Rwanda, and presided over attacks on multiple U.S. embassies and the USS Cole, while unsuccessfully curbing the rise of relatively unknown terrorist organization Al Qaeda and its leader, a Saudi Arabian named Osama bin Laden. The Democrats embodied a big, empathetic government, but were never a strong, intimidating one.

At the turn of the 21st century, we saw the political ramifications of these two stereotypes. Both Al Gore and John Kerry suffered from an ostensibly timid foreign policy, and the latter had even won purple hearts in Vietnam. In contrast, 2000s George Bush was a straight-talking Governor of Texas and was a member of the party of strength; it was as if he had a built strength on foreign policy despite being a businessman-turned-governor. Four years later, of course, he was the guy who stood on a pile of rubble and warned belligerents that we would let slip the dogs of war. He solidified and personified the perception of Republican power.

For nearly four decades, these opposing narratives were a problem for the Democrats. They were saddled with what’s sometimes called the “Mommy Problem.” When the country wanted someone to care for them, someone to show warmth and compassion, they elected a Democrat. However, it was rare that they did so. Southern Baptist Carter swept into office as a sort of disinfectant to the dishonesty of the residual Nixon White House. Clinton came in when Bush I’s economy stagnated in 1992. Most recently, the country elected President Obama when a tired, staggering President Bush passed the baton off to John McCain after Year One of the modern recession. The mommies were always there for the people when a skinned knee (or, you know, a housing crisis) needed a Band-Aid and a kiss.

More often over the last forty years, however, it seemed the people weren’t looking for a Mommy to lead them. After all, if you look at cultural anthropology and social norms, it’s men—fathers—that lead. Mommies are there to take care of you while you’re sick in bed, but it’s Daddies that take care of the mean people outside who threaten the family. Daddies—and the Republican Party—were seen as powerful protectors much more suitable to a leadership role. As such, in the 40 years between the Elections of 1968 and 2008, Republicans controlled the White House for 28 of those years, and they did it primarily by being tough on security. The Democrats, meanwhile, suffered from the Mommy Problem, only called on to help if Daddy was out drinking a little too late and we needed a forward on our allowance.

Now, remember the three boxes? While Box #3 is understandably impossible to predict, the Mommy Problem shows us a great deal about the roles of the first two boxes. The most remarkable realization is that the consistency of the parties and their strengths has made the candidate a minor variable in these elections. It’s as if the candidate were just a frontman for a shady business that called all the shots behind the scenes. In fact, for the last forty years, it really wouldn’t matter how strong a particular candidate was on the issues.

You read that right. It doesn’t matter how strong a candidate is on the issues.

Remember, what mattered was not how the candidate spoke to the issues, but what the issues were. If it were a Box #1 election, the paternalistic Republicans would win. If it were about directly caring for the people—Box #2—the Democrats would win. The party was the candidate, and the Box the home turf. The Box in which the election was held gave a great indication as to which party held the homefield advantage.

Finally, 800 words later, we return to our main topic—the 2012 presidential election. As has become clear over the last few weeks, there has been a sweeping repolarization of homefields. The Democratic candidate now makes his home in Box #1—security—while the Republican candidate hopes to pivot everything back to Box #2—the economy. Never before has there been a political repolarization so drastic and so quick. Never before have the two dominant parties so rapidly exchanged their talking points.

I mean, look at the two campaigns. President Obama killed bin Laden, who was allegedly plotting the assassination of both the President and General Petraeus. Obama took him out. The President increased aggressive drone strikes against terrorist leaders (and eliminated another top operative this weekend). In his speech renewing support for the Afghan government and people, he reminded us of his “decimation” of Al Qaeda, which downgraded their ability to attack Americans. In sum, he has been the protective father, keeping the bad guys at bay so we can grow up feeling safe and secure.

Mitt Romney and the GOP, meanwhile, hammer away at the sluggish economic recovery. Romney continues to slam the President on high unemployment. His campaign, in an effort to minimize the effects of Romney’s “likeability gap,” always reminds the voters that they’re voting for a chief executive, not a best friend, and that this election is about, first and foremost, the economy. To best appeal to worried Americans, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom has dubbed Romney an “economic savior.” Thus, here are the newly maternal Republicans, ready to take care of the struggling masses. The economy is now the Republicans’ advantage.

To combat the tough economy, President Obama has had a difficult time selling the country on the idea that the American economy is doing well. He simply cannot say that happy days are here again. Rather, he continues to shift blame onto his predecessor while promising us that things have gone from worse to merely bad, and only under him can they go from bad to better. They’ve shifted the cliché poll question, as Chuck Todd recently pointed out, from, “Are you better off than four years ago?” to “Do you think you’ll be better off four years from now?”

Meanwhile, to combat the President’s strength on foreign policy, Romney and the Republicans have criticized the Democrats for politicizing their security successes, a topic terrifically addressed by fellow Construction blogger Anthony Resnick. Sure, the President killed bin Laden, but who wouldn’t? Sure, the President has decimated Al Qaeda, but isn’t that the obvious course of action, one started by Republican President Bush? These are the questions the Republicans would like Americans asking themselves.

But here’s where the boxes become a major factor. Both parties are swimming upstream when attacking on the other side’s new home turf. Remember, it’s not who’s better on the issues, it’s what the issues are. It’s not who has the better answers to a question, it’s what the question is. It doesn’t matter if the Democrats are politicizing bin Laden or not. If people are talking about Box #1, it’s good for the President. It doesn’t matter if a Republican White House can actually fix the economy or not. If the economy is poor in November, people will talk about Box #2. If it comes to that, it doesn’t matter if the President can slickly answer economic questions; it’ll be good for Mitt Romney and the Republicans.

It’s ironic that if the Obama Campaign can make this a security election, it’s the Republicans who will be saddled with the Mommy Problem. It he can’t make it about Box #1, and the economy is still struggling in November, he’ll join the millions of Americans who are out of a job.

People think campaigns are about two competing answers to the same question. They’re not. They’re a fight over the question itself.

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Ian Cheney, Connecticut resident, wrote the Presidential Politics for America blog, which took a close look at the historic primaries of 2008 and 2012. Ian earned his B.A. in History and an M.A. in American Studies. He teaches honors history in southeast Connecticut.

View all posts by Ian Cheney →


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