Explaining Romney’s Appeal
Shock is a particularly revealing emotion. Find what shocks a person, and you get a pretty vivid sense of her beliefs and social circle. But act shocked too often or about the wrong things, and folks get judgy. That’s because shock can tell others that you don’t get out much. Don’t worry, though: this post isn’t about guilt tripping you for making fun of your grandma when she gets uncomfortable around your gay friends. It is about how my (D) friends need to lighten up on the “mind-blown” rhetoric when describing Romney’s advantage over the past month.
It seems that many of my friends have slipped into a sense of irritated bewilderment over recent polls—accurate or not—favoring my party’s candidate. I guess some head scratching is understandable, more depending on which metrics they’ve been following. Still, part of me can’t help but want to help. After all, utter shock over Romney’s support screams, “I only read The New Yorker!” Not a flattering look.
If you find yourself prone to electoral surprise, I’d like to help you save face on election night (regardless of who wins). You’ll know this is for you if “Time to Panic?” and “The Five Stages of Political Grief” mirror your emotional journey in recent weeks.
So let’s begin. Fact: Willard Mitt Romney may be elected the 45th president of these United States. If you follow my posts, you know that I’m a Republican and I’d be quite happy with the aforementioned outcome on Tuesday. But you’d also know that I’m not one to spew partisan talking points. However, it is important that folks understand an explanation for Romney’s appeal that doesn’t involve dissing half the country’s IQ. Again, I’m not assuming you or anyone you know would ever stoop so low (cough, cough). Here they are: five non-poll-based reasons that Romney hasn’t crashed and burned.
1. Forward, or More?
The president promised a new world in 2008. And he was damn good at it. Just how good? Well, one of the major flashpoints of the primary centered on Obama’s insistence that the United States initiate direct talks with Iran, absent any preconditions. Hillary thought it was reckless, while Barack thought it was just the type of optimistic go-getter-ness Washington needed. The issue isn’t important in this election (unless it is), but it is striking to notice Senator Obama’s comfort with a high bar and fresh ideas. Things have changed.
By the time his “Forward” campaign swung into action, the president seemed less willing to propose new ideas and reforms, or what Jon Stewart called “making a positive case for a second term.” (If you want to see how a master politician pivots, check out the president’s response to the question). The Obama campaign made a (correct) calculation that the president didn’t have credibility to campaign on broad initiatives. That’s fine, and all reelection campaigns have to gauge their vulnerability to the question: “If [x] is such a big deal, then why haven’t you done anything about it?” But the president decided the solution was simply to promise less—way less; we’re talking fifth-marriage-two-sentence-vows.
The result is that very few Americans have a solid sense of what Obama has planned for a second term. He wants to pass a version of the DREAM Act that is different than the ones Republicans are supposedly drafting. He wants to keep doing what he’s doing on the economy. Beyond that, it seems that the president believes his biggest job is “preventing things that won’t work,” and I presume things is code for Romney. Don’t get me wrong, my candidate hasn’t exactly promised the world either, though he’s much better at numbering his five-point plan(s).
Even if you think that Romeny and Obama are equally ambiguous about their proposals, I think a lack of specificity hurts the incumbent more than it hurts the challenger. People care to know what their president hopes to do accomplish from the Oval Office between and January 2017, and not all of them readily accept the community organizing-esque idea that a commander-in-chief “can’t change Washington from the inside.” Absent clear objectives, the “Forward” campaign must have believed Americans would cast an anti-vote because the other guy is a terrible human being. One problem . . .
2. Romney Isn’t a Terrible Human Being
The pre-Denver-debate Romney would seemingly fall somewhere to the right of Sean Hannity. Funny thing, though: he doesn’t. Republicans have known this for about 6 years—10 if you start the clock when the governor started calling himself a moderate with progressive views. The Republican primary was a sluggish one for a reason, and it wasn’t that we enjoyed 40 hours of debate airtime spread neatly across 27 evenings. But we chose Romney. He comes off as a rightward-leaning centrist because he is one. He comes off as a compromiser because he compromises. Romney compromised with Massachusetts Dems as governor, compromised to snap in line with a version of the Republican Party he hoped to lead in ’08, and continued the process in ’12 as a “severely conservative Republican.” That’s Romney, and more than a few voters just might appreciate a willingness to budge.
So we’re running a centrist-right guy who likes compromising against an incumbent who zeroed-out his political capital pushing the Affordable Care Act and hasn’t done much in the way of responding to criticism or compromise. A few Tea Party freshmen in Congress made it easy for Obama to dismiss critiques of his policies and fed the narrative that the Obama didn’t have a shot at compromise. But a president up against a caricature-worthy opposition in Congress must listen hard to decipher whether Americans might be sounding legitimate concerns through an imperfect mouthpiece. I think that this time around, they were.
3. The Difference Between Voting and Adoring
The governor is a nerd. So is the president. But it feels as though the Obama camp underappreciated the draw of a candidate willing to admit as much . . . then shrug. True, Romney’s speeches aren’t will.i.am remix-worthy. But voters who care about those types of things either don’t actually vote or were locked in for Obama by about his fourth Rolling Stone cover. There was no way Republicans would want to compete in the compelling life story or charismatic visionary departments in the wake of ’08. So I was a bit surprised that those managing the president spent so much time and money attacking Romney’s work at Bain to cast him as a quirky and unsympathetic figure. It made it easy for Romney to say that he didn’t need America’s undying love to get out of bed and go to work for it every day. It was a business world response; more Bill Gates than Steve Jobs, but business nonetheless.
Romney’s “no love required” approach acknowledged that the electoral landscape had shifted since ’08. It seems Team Romney figured that the Clinton, Bush, and Obama won in elections that turned on personal characteristics, not managerial skills. But in today’s economic climate, they sensed that America wanted something else. This freed Romney to be himself, and that has been a net win for his candidacy.
4. The Economy
There are nearly a half-billion Google listings for “economy + 2012 campaign.” I can crank out a demand curve and value chain analysis as well as the next (student loan-laden) individual, but it’s impossible to add anything new on the issue for many voters this cycle. So I won’t. Voters know that Obama is willing to involve government in the recovery process without any ideological constraints to speak of. That means the president is currently doing everything he can think of doing. And late Tuesday night, we’ll know whether enough voters (in Ohio) think staying the course is a firm strategy.
5. Bringing Balance to the Force
This last point is a bit weird (but short of scratched-on-a-wall weird). American voters in recent times seem to have intuited one of the more paradoxical features of our two-party system: the party occupying the White House gets better. That’s because the president is almost always more moderate than her party’s fringe, and presidents can usually keep their party in line. Remember Code Pink (or anti-war protest advocacy in general)? How often have you read about them in the Times since January 2009? Hint: It’s about as frequently as a Tea Party-like momentum reshaped Congress between 2000 and 2008. Zilch. It is counterintuitive, I know, but when one of America’s two great parties gets fussy, a vote for their nominee can be a vote to restore balance.
Obviously, I don’t think Americans walk this tightrope deliberately . . . which makes it all the more impressive, I suppose. But I’ll spare you any Yoda quotations and propose merely that many Tea Party candidates spooked a good number of centrists. There’s a scratched up wall somewhere suggesting that voters might reward the Republican Party’s decision to nominate a more responsible candidate. For my (D) friends, look on the bright side: If Romney wins, you’ll at least get the far more extensive civil liberties and drone warfare debate our country deserves.
I do not know who will win on Tuesday, but if Romney is president-elect on Wednesday, nobody should go into shock. An Obama win should prove equally unbewildering. America is in the take-a-deep-breath/Schrödinger’s Cat/“don’t screw this up, Ohio” phase of the election season. We only have a few more days as the backbone of democratic discourse. Then its back to “nerd.” So savor it and stay classy.