Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Clintonian and Bushian Paths to Reelection

When you watch Obama positioning himself for 2012, after the shellacking his party took in 2010, it’s natural to presume he’s trying to reenact the triangulation strategy Bill Clinton perfected in 1996. At first glance, Obama’s emergence as a born-again deficit hawk trying to talk reason to Tea Partiers is his way of doing what Clinton did to the Gingrich Republicans. Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin’s much discussed piece on Politico today suggests, however, that the Obama-Clinton comparison may be superficial (my emphasis):
“[T]he candidate who ran on ‘hope’ in 2008 has little choice four years later but to run a slashing, personal campaign aimed at disqualifying his likeliest opponent. In a move that will make some Democrats shudder, Obama’s high command has even studied former President George W. Bush’s 2004 takedown of Sen. John Kerry, a senior campaign adviser told POLITICO, for clues on how a president with middling approval ratings can defeat a challenger.

“‘Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney,’ said a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House.”
At least in one respect, it’s hard to see how Obama can take a whole page from either, much less both, the Clinton and Bush playbooks. Granted both of those predecessors won reelection despite “middling approval ratings.” They did it, however, in strikingly different ways, neither of which is readily open to Obama.

Clinton won reelection by letting voters know that he’d learned, painfully, that some of the grand liberal aspirations he brought to Washington were grandiose. Proclaiming that the “age of big government is over” was his way of letting voters know that he wouldn’t be repeating the mistakes of his first term. It was easy enough for Clinton to pivot away from things like HillaryCare and the BTU tax because they’d never come close to being enacted in his first term. One thing he seldom did, however, was demean Bob Dole’s integrity. The last thing Clinton wanted to do while he was refashioning himself to new political realities was to get voters focused on how principled he was compared to his opponent.

Whatever else it may have been, Bush’s reelection campaign was no admission of error. The last thing he was about to do was apologize for his massive tax cuts and the Iraq War. Whether it was a matter of waiting for the economy to pick up steam or prevailing in the War on Terror, Bush’s motto was “stay the course.” A lot of people thought that was mere stubbornness on his part. But you have to admit that it took some fortitude. John Kerry, the guy who was for the war before he was against it, was the perfect foil. Bush could traffic on Kerry’s flip-flopping precisely because he was eager to stand by his own record.

Obama can’t be as slippery as Clinton. He can’t pivot away from the agenda he brought to Washington as easily because, like Bush, he managed to get too much of it enacted. So triangulating in the grand Clintonian style would necessitate an abject confession of error with respect to things like the stimulus and ObamaCare. From all appearances, such confessions don’t come any more easily to the Obama than they came to Bush.

Yet the fact that Obama isn't ready to admit that the stimulus and ObamaCare were mistakes, doesn’t mean that he's anxious to talk much about them now that they’re both so resoundingly unpopular. He may be as dogged (or stubborn) as Bush, but he can’t afford to be ostentatiously so. How does he contrast his own steadfastness with Romney’s opportunism without talking about the record he clearly doesn’t want to talk about?

If his only paths to reelection are to follow the path of either Clinton or Bush, Obama is toast.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You make valid points. Obama's only option is to blame Bush for all the problems he's inherited. That might work.