Time To Panic?
[quote]Romney’s campaign is “done” now in the same sense that it was done last week: there is nothing his campaign can do—no shift in strategy, no clever ad, not even an outstanding debate performance—to win the election.[/quote]
Two weeks after I wrote that passage (emphasis added), Mitt Romney gave an outstanding debate performance, and now has a very real chance of winning the election. So, I’ll leave it to your judgment whether to consider anything else I have to say. Where did I go wrong?
First, I put way too much credence in this Ezra Klein post about the relevance of debates and how a Romney comeback at that stage of the election would be unprecedented. What I failed to properly consider is that everything is unprecedented until it isn’t. (Something important for panicky liberals to keep in mind as we’re reminded that no candidate with a lead like Romney’s in the Gallup poll this late in the campaign has ever lost.)
Second, I failed to heed Ben Hoffman’s wisdom about most of the country not following the race as obsessively as political junkies. Part of my rationale for counting out Romney was my thought that he was a known, and disliked, candidate. I thought that the dynamic of the race was set, and since part of the reason Romney is disliked is a seeming lack of core conviction and willingness to reinvent himself for political reasons I thought he would have an especially difficult time shifting back to the center. The Etch A Sketch strategy shouldn’t work when you telegraph it. And yet, the polling seems to indicate that many people came to the first debate with a fresh set of eyes and liked what they saw from Mitt (3.0? 4.0? 5.0?). The president mostly stood by and allowed Romney to present the new, moderate version of himself, not seeming to realize until the next day what was going on. The president did a better job in the last two debates of forcing Romney to confront the contradictions in his positions, but the damage has largely been done. Two straight debate victories for President Obama have stopped the bleeding but have so far produced little in terms of polling gains. We have ourselves a race.
So, how worried should we be? There are two aspects to that question: how likely is a Romney win, and how bad would a Romney presidency be? On the first question, the race still tilts in favor of the president. Construction’s Ian Cheney has been wisely advising for months that the only numbers to watch are polls from swing states. Indeed, it is President Obama’s strength in swing state polling, particularly his lead in Ohio, that gives him a continued advantage in Nate Silver’s projection. Of course, Silver’s projections are based on current polling, and, as we’ve seen since the first debate, polling can change. The next few days of polling, as we see whether Romney’s momentum has stalled and whether President Obama got any bounce from the third debate, will be crucial to the framing of the last two weeks of the campaign. The next two weeks are sure to be deeply negative, and whichever candidate is perceived as being in a weaker position risks coming off as desperate. If it’s the president who’s seen as weak, Romney’s “the president is attacking me because he has no agenda” line will have greater traction.
[pullquote_right]The biggest reason to fear a Romney presidency is that he will be acting in concert with the loathsome Republican Congress.[/pullquote_right]
The second question, how bad would a Romney presidency be, is impossible to answer without knowing if we’re getting the moderate Massachusetts governor, the conservative Republican primary candidate, or the vaguely defined hybrid of the last few weeks. The biggest reason to fear a Romney presidency is that he will be acting in concert with the loathsome Republican Congress. But, it’s even difficult to predict how a Republican Congress under a President Romney would act. While the current Republican congressional delegation has more than its fair share of hacks and crackpots, the party leadership has, by its own admission, been driven less by ideology than by defeating President Obama. A Republican Congress hell-bent on re-electing President Romney would behave very differently than a Republican Congress hellbent on defeating President Obama. (Important note: these uncertainties are not a question of “terrible” or “not terrible” but rather of “how terrible.” A President Romney plus a Republican Congress would almost certainly mean an attack on Medicare and Medicaid, a crippling of health care reform, more right-wing ideologues on the Supreme Court, exploding deficits caused by further tax cuts for the wealthy, rollback of financial regulation, and further inaction on climate change and immigration.)
Less significant, but easier to predict, than the policy effect of a Romney win is the political effect. A Romney win would reward both the intransigence of the Republican Party over the last four years and the Romney campaign’s explicit disregard for facts. For as long as we’ve had politicians we’ve had complaints about the cynicism of politicians, but the conservative movement has taken things to a new level during the Obama administration, engaging in what has rightly been dubbed “post-truth” politics. President Obama has sought in good faith to govern the country, to solve the country’s problems. While no doubt some of the Republican Party’s opposition to the president’s agenda comes from genuine policy disagreements, there has been no effort to compromise, only politically-motivated obstruction and hysterical misrepresentations of the president’s actions. As The New Yorker put it in its excellent, thoughtful endorsement of the president: “A two-term Obama Administration will leave an enduringly positive imprint on political life. It will bolster the ideal of good governance and a social vision that tempers individualism with a concern for community.”
So, back to the original question: how worried should we be? Very. I continue to trust Nate Silver’s projections, and think 30% represents a fair estimate of Romney’s chance of victory. But that 30% represents a 30% chance of something deeply disturbing, both for what it would say about where we are as a democratic republic and for where President Romney is likely to lead us.