In 1983 the Democrats were sure they had a candidate that would send Ronald Reagan, whose approval ratings reached as low as 38% that year, back to Hollywood. Walter Mondale was the consummate politician. Polished, careful, and connected, the former Minnesota Senator and Vice President had been successful at every level. His professionalism, intelligence and poise would be the perfect foil for Reagan. Reagan had proven himself not ready for prime time by a series of gaffes and an apparent inability to handle the recession.
The problem with Mondale can be best summed up by a Bloom County comic from 1984. The Meadow Party is about to nominate Bill the Cat for President, even though Bill had apparently died. At the same time, the Democratic party is starting its convention. A Mondale supporter with a sign and Mondale pins and stickers comes up to Opus the Penguin:
“This isn’t the Democratic Convention?”
Opus: “No. That’s across the street behind you. We’re the Meadow Party.”
Mondale supporter: “Yeah? So who have you guys got to go up against Reagan in the fall.”
Opus: “A dead cat.”
The Mondale supporter looks behind him, thinks, then enters the Meadow party convention saying, “Oh, what the hell.”
In short, Mondale was such a professional politician that he was boring. He was connected, a Democratic insider, had all the credentials, but ultimately when people looked at him next to the rugged, charismatic and charming Reagan he didn’t stand a chance.
President Obama, like President Reagan, inherited a deep and serious recession. Unlike President Reagan, he inherited high debt levels, a massive current account deficit, and total foreign debt of over $12 trillion (now at $14 trillion). Reagan came into office with the lowest debt to GDP ratios since WWII, a current account still in surplus, and little foreign debt. As oil prices fell, naturally stimulating the economy, Reagan could afford to mix low interest rates with a huge jump in deficit spending and debt to hyper-stimulate the economy. Obama doesn’t have that luxury. This suggests that even if the economy improves in 2012 the “morning in America” ads proclaiming the end of the recession for Reagan in 1984 aren’t in the cards for Obama.
Right now, Obama is considered likely to be re-elected because of the weakness of his opposition. While Reagan could mix conservatism with charm and pragmatic appeal, today’s Republicans fall short. Reagan was popular not because he stood on principle, but because of his optimism. It was contagious. You could tell he believed Americans could achieve anything, and that’s something people wanted to hear. Obama doesn’t have the same kind of charm, but he’s an inspiring speaker, performs very well in debates, and can still inspire hope.
From the GOP the negativity coming out of the various camps is palpable — Rick Perry’s book is called Fed Up, crowds at GOP debates boo a gay soldier and then cheer someone dying because he didn’t have insurance, and a kind of angry frustration shapes their message. Knowing that the primary voters and convention goers want red meat, the politicians fall over themselves trying to sound more true conservative than others. Jon Huntsman, who refuses to go that route, gets ridiculed and even demonized by some on the right.
Standing above it all at this point is Mitt Romney. Romney is an unlikely front runner. His health care program in Massachusetts is much like the Obama plan the GOP condemns, he’s a Mormon (distrusted by some evangelical groups), and he’s seen as the ultimate insider — connected where it counts, but lacking in deep convictions. In the first election after the tea party sweep of 2010 many in the Republican party hoped for that special someone who would come and be the perfect mix of conservative principles and charming electability — another Reagan.
To be sure, the Ronald Reagan of 1980 would be positively left wing by the standards of many in the tea party today. But the former actor turned politician focused on optimism and a disarming charm to convince people his ideology wasn’t as scarey as the left claimed it was. Bachmann, Palin, Perry, Cain and Santorum seem petty and pessimistic by comparison. They can be scary without help from the left. While Santorum battles google over what gets shown when his last name is googled on their search engine and the others try to position themselves just to the right of all the rest, only Mitt Romney has been able to rise above the fray. Add to that his popularity in New Hampshire, and he could quickly position himself as not only the clear front runner, but the only one with a chance at beating Obama.
But will he be a repeat of the Mondale candidacy — an insider who is seen as a safe choice against as supposedly weak opponent, but one who does not inspire loyalty and intense support? Will Obama end up not getting the kind of blowout that Reagan got in 1984, but a win that seems unlikely given the mood of the country now, in 2011?
That’s a question impossible to answer now. If the economy ticks upward in the next year, Obama could well be a shoe in. If it plummets deep into a double dip he might lose to even Bugs Bunny. If things remain on the edge this could be a year where the campaigns truly matter. That should make Republicans nervous. While Romney is a smarter campaigner this time, and isn’t leaving a trail of land mines behind him set to go off during the general election campaign, it will take a lot to match and counter the Obama machine. Yes the big funders are hesitant and the small donations aren’t coming in as fast as they used to. But Obama had to fight Hillary in the 2008 primaries; now virtually all his money will go to the general election.
Obama has already begun to arouse his base — even as the Republicans scream it’s class warfare. As the campaign heats up, image, style, and even substance will all make a difference. Is Mitt up to the challenge? He’s no Ronald Reagan, the Republicans realize. He’s too aloof, east coast and intellectual for that. He’s more comfortable in the board room than on a saddle. But is he a Walter Mondale — an insider with connections and political finesse who cannot arouse the interest, imagination and devotion of the voting public? Assuming the dynamic of the primary season stays steady, that’s a question we’ll be in a better position to answer next year.