It is a match up that the tea party and Occupy Wall Street will abhor. An inside the beltway Republican whose Massachusetts health care plan was the blue print for President Obama’s health care reform vs. an establishment Democrat who choose Wall Street insiders as his economic team rather than more radical economic mavericks. President Obama is among the 1% the OWS oppose.
It’s too early to know for sure that Mitt Romney will be the GOP candidate, but it certainly looks that way as he lines up endorsements. At this point in 2008 Hillary Clinton looked like a shoe in for the Democratic nomination so there still could be surprises. Yet none of Romney’s rivals have anything like the campaign juggernaut Obama already had in place in 2007 and in modern politics that’s what matters.
Mitt Romney is everything the tea party supposedly opposed. He is Mormon (not Christian in the eyes of some fundamentalists), he’s been pro-choice in the past, and he governed liberal Massachusetts in a markedly moderate manner. Like former President Clinton he seems adept at saying what an audience wants to hear, but once in power his pragmatism will mean he’s unlikely to push for tea party ideas that don’t play well with the majority. In short, he won’t fight for the right wing, he’ll govern to try to solve problems. A Romney Presidency may not be that much different than an Obama Presidency!
To both the tea party and OWS it leaves little choice. Most will vote for the guy on their side out of a desire to prevent the other guy from winning. But many true believers may sit this out or vote for a third party out of protest.
For the GOP the focus will be negative advertising against Obama, mostly by special interest groups not directly associated with Romney. That way he’s not tied to the tactics and can even criticize them while they push the tea party to vote Romney out of fear/hatred of Obama. It would be winning ugly, but a win is a win.
For Obama the goal is to infiltrate the OWS movement and try to direct its energy into participation in the 2012 election, recapturing the fervor of 2008. The idea is that motivated students and young people, as well as others caught up in the protest, will be more likely to vote than otherwise would be the case. If they aren’t excited for Obama, they can be lured to vote against Romney through negative advertising, or brought to the voting both for ballot issues or lower ballot races reflecting the movement’s ideals.
Obama looks vulnerable, but given the economy he could be in much worse shape. His third quarter haul for fund raising was $70 million, down from $80 million in Q2, but above expectations. This means he already has raised about $200 million overall, and the heaviest fundraising hasn’t even started yet. He’s likely to top $1 billion, and money matters in modern campaigns. Moreover, with no primary opponent this time he can focus entirely on defeating the eventual Republican nominee.
The GOP, meanwhile, has been suffering the same kind of let down that the Democrats experienced after 2008. They took the House, but the tea party’s allure has faded and Obama’s numbers remain just under 50% approval. Obama’s foreign policy also has turned out to be a strong point. Besides being generally liked and respected abroad, he’s mixed a tough counter-terrorism policy (killing many top al qaeda leaders including Osama Bin Laden) with a reasonably effective draw down of forces in Iraq. Even Afghanistan appears more stable than it used to be, and the GOP will have trouble making the argument that Obama is soft or ineffective on foreign policy.
It all comes down to the economy, but Republican success in 2010 gives Obama a tool in 2012. He can blame the GOP for not passing a jobs bill and standing in the way of compromises that could have moved the economy forward. This is already being said, Vice President Biden claimed recently that the Republicans want to “sabotage the economy.” In a close election if doubt can be cast on which party really should be blamed for economic conditions, that helps Obama.
All that said, Romney is a consummate politician who unlike the rest of the GOP field is making no unforced errors and doing nothing that will come back to haunt him in the general election (unlike Rick Perry, whose social security stance will cost him elderly voters if he’s the nominee). He’s managed to play the tea party favorites off against each other and appeal to the average Republican — those more concerned about competence and beating Obama. He’s not totally ignoring Iowa this time and has an operation in New Hampshire that is almost sure to bring him a big victory there. He’s got a better than even chance of avoiding a long, bloody primary battle.
While he seems slick, he also appears calm and competent. Independents disappointed with Obama won’t be scared away from Romney the way they might be from Cain or Perry (let alone Bachmann or Palin!) If the economy is still in the dumps, it will be relatively easy for people to say, “well, let’s try Romney, let’s see what he can do.”
The question is whether Romney can inspire support, something I noted awhile back when I compared him to Mondale. Here is where the left and right “movements” become interesting. Romney’s capacity to appeal to the center is clear, but can he keep the loyalty and enthusiasm of the activists, people who until now have been very cool to a Romney candidacy? Assuming no third party candidacy, many tea party folk may decide they can’t stomach Mitt as the GOP standard barrier and wait for 2016 and a chance to nominate a “true Christian conservative.”
OWS has two dangers for Obama. First, just as the tea party scared off moderates from the GOP, OWS arouses skepticism as well. Just as Nixon used the 1968 protests in his favor, Romney could argue that the country needs to return to a more stable and predictable government. Second, OWS could turn on Obama and urge people to sit out the election. Despite Republican rhetoric, Obama’s policies have been very friendly to Wall Street and the business community. To OWS he’s shown that he’s not a true progressive, they may feel compelled to sit out and try to nominate someone fresh in 2016. Romney won’t cause fear based Obama voting in the way that a Perry might.
It’s still very early and things could change rapidly. But right now the 2012 campaign looks to be fascinating. In a country that appears divided with rival left and right movements, the probable candidates are centrist and more alike then most people realize. Comparisons with past elections are of little help — the Obama campaign machine and the nature of this crisis will assure 2012 will be a unique, perhaps historic election. Let the fun begin!