A little less than four years ago (we’d made it to mid-October 2008) I noted that the McCain campaign had underestimated Obama, and quoted two conservatives making that case:
…”constructing” a “narrative” of Obama as a “lightweight celebrity” was a strategy that depended upon Obama showing himself to be nothing more than a lightweight celebrity candidate. But what if he showed more than that? What would the McCain campaign do then? In other words, McCain’s strategy depended upon Obama failing, not McCain succeeding. As such it was vulnerable. Indeed, it was predicated upon an analysis that was not the GOP’s to control. [Emphasis mine]
And Daniel Larison:
There is a basic rule in any competition, and elections are no different. If you assume that all you really need do is show up and wait for the other side to fail, you will lose and probably quite embarrassingly at that. McCain never made the case for himself, because he assumed that he would be the default winner once the public decided Obama was unprepared. Whether or not Obama is unprepared by some standards is not the point. Relative to McCain, he has shown himself to be fairly masterful while his opponent blunders and lurches. Despite having every advantage in the political conditions this year, Obama has not taken those advantages for granted nearly as much as he could have done. The post-nomination pandering and position-switching, all of which now seems to have been quite unnecessary, were part of a steady, cautious effort to appear cautious and steady, which gave calls for undefined change a reassuring rather than an unsettling quality and negated McCain’s efforts to portray him as reckless and unready.
What is striking about McCain’s failure is how irrational it was to approach an election this way amid conditions that everyone acknowledged to be very good for Democrats. It might make sense to coast along on biography and belittling your opponent’s readiness and depth in a year when you have the wind at your back, a coherent message and a party label that is not radioactive, but McCain had none of these advantages. Gordon Brown, a similarly doomed political figure, also likes the refrain “it’s no time for a novice” as a dig against Cameron, but after years of failure by the experienced politicians you would naturally think this is precisely the time for some new blood. McCain supporters are always dwelling on Obama’s inexperience. This would be fair enough, but we see now that it isn’t very smart, because each time this charge is made people are reminded that he hasn’t been in Washington very long, to which the ordinary sane response is to say, “Excellent.”[Emphasis mine]
Why does this sound familiar?
Now, in fairness to John McCain, he lost an election that would have been very hard to win no matter what. He didn’t make his life any easier, but he didn’t fumble away a sure victory, either.
This year, Mitt Romney’s strategy was, essentially, to be the out party in a bad economy. But, as Jon Chait pointed out in May, he doesn’t have a plan B:
Reinhard immediately follows up, asking if he has a way to win without relying on the drag of the economic crisis:
NJ What is your Plan B if the economy continues to improve?
I think the question will come down to, Do people feel that the country is headed in the right direction? What about their lives has gotten better? The fundamental question is, Do you think the solutions presented by this president have worked and will they work, or is there a better alternative? We’re confident that Governor Romney is presenting a more positive alternative that is much more forward-looking.
You might think the Plan B answer would be that Romney can still win by offering a more persuasive policy vision or proven leadership or something, but no. Plan B in case the economy improves is that the economy is still bad.
Which is fine, I guess, assuming that the other side doesn’t, you know, make a competing argument effectively.
I don’t think the Romney people are overwhelmed with people who think the economy is doing great (although quite a few who are doing well are, ironically, supporting Romney). But they’ve been unable to convince people that Obama made it worse, and, in one of the most effective speeches at any political convention ever, Bill Clinton provided a framework for the last four years that most people understand, and, more importantly, makes a lot of the Romney arguments fall flat. I mean, when Democrats are mocking tax cuts, you know that argument for growth is losing.
I suspect that’s why Romney’s been jumping into the foreign policy fray, although that hasn’t really worked out well, either.
I don’t think that Romney’s problem is setting up a campaign that attacks Barack Obama for a weak economy (although, as of this months’s revisions, Obama is a net job creator). It’s appearing to believe (because all those good Republicans tell you so) that he really, actually, screwed it up.
It doesn’t help that you have not been, shall we say, consistent over the years. It doesn’t help that he created the health care plan that Obama pushed through nationally. (In a sign of how desperate Romney and the GOP are, he’s apparently allowed to mention Romneycare again.)
And it really doesn’t help when you dismiss half the country to a group of 1 per-centers in Boca Raton.
So the Romney plan was this:
- Assume the economy will be poisonous for Obama
- Defeat, with overwhelming financial clout, the lineup of political dwarves aligned against you
- Tout your record as Governor of Massachusetts
- Tout your private sector business experience
- Make the argument that you are better positioned than Obama to move the country forward
- …Victory (QED)
And here’s what happened:
- The economy wasn’t quite bad enough
- The Democratic convention provided a framework that made Obama look far better (as demonstrated by his job approval ratings jumping right after)
- The Obama campaign & surrogates filleted Romney’s business experience, making it nearly poisonous to mention
- The Republican party was (until very recently) unwilling to let Romney tout his one governing achievement
- Romney picks at his VP candidate the face of the worst excesses of Republican social thought
- Romney’s desperate foreign policy attacks backfire
- Romney is caught on tape seeming natural and at ease as he disparages the elderly, veterans, and the working poor.
Here’s where it would help if Romney had a personality to fall back on. Sadly (for him) his guiding principle is that he should be President, and while most voters know that’s in a candidates DNA somewhere, most prefer that it be a recessive gene.
So, 40 days out, Romney’s plan to bury Obama with the economy isn’t working; what little he’s saying about his plans for his Presidency aren’t selling; and he has capped his favorability so much that he’s dead in a straight-up popularity contest.
Apparently, the business genius has been out-strategized by the community organizer. And I’m telling you, there’s no sign anyone in the Obama camp took anything for granted at all.
By the way, that “not taking anything for granted” thing? Probably a good quality to have in a President.
[Image via the brilliant Despair.com.]