These have been a bad couple of weeks for Obama. Unemployment went up, even if by very little. The European picture is bleak and could lead to bad reverberations for the American economy. Obama’s attacks on Bain capital and Romney as Governor of Massachusetts drew attacks from allies as, at the least, negative campaigning that does not get his own message across, and also as condemning all takeover firms as vultures when some of them do good work. And although Obama continues to say the right things, he does not do so with any enthusiasm. We have all been here before; it was last summer when he dithered about making a deal with the Republican Congress. Repeat the following mantra ten times, President Obama: the Republicans are not your friends. You can’t make deals with them; you can only defeat them because otherwise they will defeat you, and then we will have Mitt Romney, whom nobody likes, including the Republicans. Will that be your legacy to the nation?
People I know are beginning to think that Romney could indeed win, even if they agree that a Romney Presidency would be, as Bill Clinton describes it, “calamitous”. Why? Because Romney has no core character to rely on when the going gets rough in foreign policy, about which he knows very little and he seems in no rush to learn anything. And he would turn over domestic policy to the Know-Nothings. You think this business man would have more sense than that and come to rely on his Establishment economists to help him run the economy? What evidence has he given of that? Yes, he has said, as a throwaway remark, that tax cuts now are bad for employment, but that is, like all his throwaway lines, not something he will stand on when politics intrude. It is just one of the things he says to fill up space until the election. What he is now is what you would get. Don’t count on a conversion to responsibility the night he wins the election. It never happens.
Obama, as I have remarked before, always had the good luck to have weak opponents, except the time he ran against Bobby Rush for Congress and lost. Romney is the candidate that keeps giving. He has no agenda other than to get elected. People will sense that and Obama’s camp will point that out for the rest of the campaign, now that they have established the lie in Romney saying he was a job creator whether at Bain or in Massachusetts. The past few weeks have been the artillery barrage that softens up the enemy, and what comes next will be the charge over the barricades. We will see whether it works. People have been too much in a hurry to point out Obama’s weaknesses as a candidate: he doesn’t sell himself enough; he seems cold and aloof; he doesn’t pick fights with the Republicans. Well, it is a long summer and now is not the time to launch what the Obama people think might be a knockout blow. Only politics wonks are paying attention as of yet.
There is a deeper issue, however, that neither camp has caught onto yet. It is how campaigns have changed in the mere year and a half since the Congressional elections of 2010, much less since the long distant election of 2008 when Obama got elected. It isn’t that the structure of the news cycle has speeded it. The twenty four hour news cycle has been a feature of campaigns ever since the advent of CNN, the Internet, and cell phones. What has changed is the substance of the campaign: what qualifies as a political issue worth taking sides about. The 2008 election was remarkably bereft of ideology. It was about the agent of change who was such in his very essence as a black man a national hero, never mind where he stood on particular issues. The 2010 election also wasn’t about ideology because the Tea Party people weren’t peddling principles; they were peddling Know Nothing emotions. I am against government and don’t take away my Medicare. And if you reach back to antediluvian 2004, the Republicans had already learned at least one half of the lesson that you can get elected President without ideology. The positive case for President Bush was that he was tough on national defense (when the truth was only that he was aggressive) and the negative case the Republicans ran against Sen. Kerry was the Swift Boat attack ads, which were patently untrue, but who cared except the Democrats? Anyway, Sen. Kerry had asked for it by parading around at his Convention as the war hero.
The problem this time around is that part of the nation has moved even farther away from ideology and so the campaign is being waged on two fronts. There is an ideological battle to shore up the base and those few near enough the base to be reassured by ideological arguments. For those voters, the fight is portrayed as big government versus big corporations, but that is awfully vague in that most people want both and so those are just slogans, while an ideology is a set of intersecting propositions about the nature of social life that can illuminate how to address particular social issues. People who thought unions were the vehicle whereby the working class could earn a decent wage and get some job security voted for FDR who supported the legislation that regularized the process of union recognition. Social Conservatives supported Reagan and others who said they were against Roe v. Wade even if Reagan and his people did very little to overthrow it. Today, however, it is difficult to find out what Republicans dislike about Obama-care other than that it is “big government”. After all, it is Romney’s program. Neither side wants to talk about health care.
What is it they do want to talk about? That the economy is not as bad as it could be and not as good as it should be? Those are alternative descriptions, not prescriptions. So, instead, they talk about peripheral matters that evoke clichés about ideologies, as when Solyndra is portrayed as a scandal even if Obama’s Administration can easily ride that out because it has been remarkably free of corruption. Moreover, Solyndra was just one example of using public capital investment to start up private enterprise. Isn’t that what venture capitalists also do? Such references appeal to the convinced but don’t generate much media coverage. The Democrats also attend to mostly niggling issues that don’t generate much air time. Democrats talk equal pay for equal work, when discrimination has very little to do with why women make less than men (mostly because they interrupt their stay in the work force to raise their families and because men are in the unionized and well paying construction jobs).
Mitt Romney, the more successful of the two candidates at invoking ideology without taking on the responsibilities of an ideologist, is the stealth candidate who insists on flying below the radar. He has no proposals he wants to discuss. He does not appear on network news shows (Fox not counting) and gives no formal open press conferences, only brief chats on the campaign plane. He is a businessman without a business plan for America. And so Obama has to pave the way for autumn confrontations with the Republican candidate by proposing to Congress job and other legislation that he knows the Republican Congress will not accept. That will be the basis for an ideological attack on Romney as the candidate of the moneyed interests who care not a whit about the middle class. But in an age of non-ideology, it will be difficult to make headway with that case, even if, to my perhaps overly rational perspective, the heart of a campaign should be what the candidate offers to the people as his guiding point of view.
Each side uses ideology only to go after its base and not to go after the so-called swing or independent voters, who seem, according to the polls, to be just the low lives you do not want settling an election. They take up the idea of being independent and so disdainful of both political parties not because they are sophisticated enough to see through the parties but because they are sufficiently pre-political in their consciousness that disdain is a way to short circuit the need for thought. They are not people who ponder politics long and hard and can’t make up their minds; they are people so removed from the political process that you don’t know what will set them off in one direction or the other and so both sides run scared. You never know what will get to these people and so it is no use spelling out your position on issues. Therefore neither Romney nor Obama want to discuss health care; neither Romney nor Obama want to discuss restructuring the financial system. They have narrowed themselves between a superficial choice between the pro-business and the pro-government model, which is so vague there is nothing to discuss.
There is a good reason why the candidates reserve ideology only to energize their bases. Apart from getting out the vote drives in the battleground states, the fight is for those of the Independents that live in battleground states, American politics having become sufficiently polarized that the electoral votes for most states are clearly in the bag for one party or another. And, as everybody knows, there are only half a dozen of those battleground states, and so there is a lot of money spent on ads in Virginia and Iowa and very little spent in California and Texas. The election would be very different if there were no Electoral College and so Obama had to run up his vote in California and New York, just as Romney would have to run up his vote in Texas. Then the candidates would have to explain themselves more to their base so as to turn out their vote everywhere across the nation. That could make elections more rather than less ideological in that Obama would explain why his particular bills are good for the working class and also for social issue Liberals—you surely didn’t think that social issues were a force only on the Right? Civil liberties and gay rights are Liberal social issues and have been ever since Herbert Lehman introduced an anti-McCarthy plank at the 1956 Democratic Convention, clearly distinguishing it from a Civil Rights plank that might gain a less favorable reception.
Without an Electoral College, my vote would count and all the old ladies in the Bronx would get their doors knocked on by campaign workers offering to drive them to the polls on Election Day. I always supported the idea that the Electoral College at least settled who was President even if a close popular vote would result in endless litigation. My confidence in the Electoral College was destroyed by Florida in 2000. And I do not like being subject to de facto disenfranchisement, a feeling I share with numerous Southern voters who have to face voter qualifications of the sort not seen since the Voting Rights Act. The American economy, which still seems to be the best performing economy in the world, or maybe just behind Germany, is not in as bad shape as is our political system.