A lot of high-priced consultants are gathering quietly now, plotting how to retain control of the government or to capture Washington. At great cost per hour, they are poring over data, consulting poll findings, weighing demographic and geographic considerations, drawing up scenarios for how Barack Obama should portray his handling of foreign affairs and whom Mitt Romney should select for his running mate.
Let them consult, ponder, argue, postulate. For most of the rest of us, outside the closed doors and hushed conversations, there is no reason to be daunted by the mystery of presidential politics this year. You can acquit yourself credibly at any cocktail party by mentioning these four critical factors and ordering yourself another cherry daiquiri, specifying fresh lime juice of course.
This is an all-purpose, all-time hardy perennial. The scrawled sign on the wall of Bill Clinton’s Little Rock headquarters in 1992 proclaiming that the economy, stupid, was the issue, contained no special insight. It’s almost always the economy. It was the economy in 1992, when it was in a ditch, and it was the economy in 1996, when growth was steady, inflation was low and unemployment was rare. It’s the economy now, too.
But with a difference. The issue this time is the stewardship of the economy amid an international financial crisis. Obama will argue conditions could be a lot worse; Romney will argue they should be a lot better. Many of Obama’s allies won’t mention that they think his stimulus was too small, and lots of Romney’s backers won’t mention that they find his newfound economic conservatism a little ungenuine and a little unsettling.
In truth, none of those arguments may matter much. If there’s a repeat of the kind of grim economic news that greeted the nation this month, Obama will spend the rest of the campaign on the defensive.
Right now there’s not much either candidate can do to affect the economy by November, though Obama is the ship’s captain and will be regarded as the responsible officer on board. One of the two men will be the beneficiary, the other the victim, of events unpredictable now.
They came out in droves for Obama four years ago. He must win them in similar numbers this time, too.
But there’s a trap here, and it’s easy to be ensnared in it. The pool we describe as “young people” in 2012 isn’t the same pool that was described that way four years ago. Just as young people graduate from high school and from college, they also graduate out of the “young people” category. Many of the young people who voted for Obama aren’t, strictly speaking, young anymore. And all of them are four years older, some of them are four years wiser and most of them have been burned by the past four years.
Then there are the new “young people” who couldn’t vote last time around but are eligible now. They grew up with even more diminished horizons than those who came before them. The advantage here remains with Obama, but he has a new audience and must master a new sales pitch for them.
Few incumbent politicians have bungled their relationship with a key constituency as consistently, as needlessly, as thoughtlessly and as thoroughly as Obama has with Catholic voters.
Four years ago, this group — which really isn’t a group, it being about a quarter of the electorate and thus so large as to be prone to division — sided with Obama over Sen. John McCain by a healthy margin, 54 percent to 45 percent. That roughly reversed the margin that George W. Bush held over Sen. John F. Kerry, himself a Catholic, in 2004.
Now ardent Catholics are alienated and casual Catholics are mystified as Obama, with his initiative to include contraception in health insurance plans, has set himself at odds with the church hierarchy. He and Romney at this point are basically tied among Catholic voters.
Could it be that the Obama team reached for the “women’s vote” — the gender gap is an important precept of its general-election strategy — and in so doing jeopardized the Catholic vote?
In that question is a caution for us all: Just as there are millions of Catholics who do not vote as a monolith, there are millions of women who do not vote in liberal lockstep. Watch the generalizations.
The lift of a driving dream
More than 40 years ago, White House speechwriter Ray Price wrote this line for Richard M. Nixon: “What America needs most today is what it once had, but has lost: the lift of a driving dream.” In the years that followed, “the lift of a driving dream” went from being a lovely grace note in a Nixon speech to a ridiculed phrase applied to purplish prose.
For our purposes, we return to its original meaning.
In 2008, Obama provided the lift of a driving dream without speaking drivel. He gave flight to deep-seated hopes and deeply felt frustrations. Only in 1980, when Ronald Reagan captured Americans’ yearning to feel optimistic again, and in 1960, when John F. Kennedy captured Americans’ yearning to feel idealistic again, has a presidential candidate in modern times had that effect. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t in 1932.
Obama has failed as president to provide the lift, although at least some of the dreams of some of his allies — such as advocates of national health care and gay rights — have been realized. But Romney has failed as a candidate to provide lift as well.
Politics isn’t only position papers and tax policies, vows to propose this or to veto that. There is also a bit of silvery stardust to it. That stardust seldom lasts; Obama’s has all but vanished, just as Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s did in Canada and Tony Blair’s did in Great Britain. Even so, voters crave a bit of it, even (or especially) in times of economic distress.
It’s the economy, yes. But that may not be the only thing that will need a lift in this election. A driving dream will, too. Listen for it. It may matter.
— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.