The home-stretch runs of presidential campaigns reliably feature a distinctive tone and tempo: The pace quickens, the crowds build, and the adrenaline surges, as the candidates frantically crisscross the country, wired and sleepless and fueled by the sense (justified or not) that the wind is at their backs. But the final week of this year’s election was not like that at all. Instead it was a week when nature intruded with a historically horrible storm, injecting a dose of heavy reality into a campaign that, all too often and maddeningly, has been utterly divorced from it.
For much of 2012, Barack Obama’s team fretted over nothing more than the possibility of an exogenous event that would fundamentally alter the presidential race, laying waste to their minutely calibrated victory plan. But instead, when that bitch Sandy huffed and puffed, it was Mitt Romney’s house that took the hit. It wasn’t just that the hurricane allowed Obama both to be and appear to be manifestly presidential. Or that the devastation the storm wrought highlighted the importance of infrastructure and the vital role of government in times of crisis. The problem for Romney was more basic and brutish: Through no fault of his own, he found himself rendered irrelevant, a man without a role to play. At the first presidential debate, it was Obama who imitated Clint Eastwood’s empty chair; in the wake of Sandy, it was Romney who had the part thrust upon him, along with the worst fate imaginable for a presidential challenger: a weeklong news blackout.
Should Romney fall short on November 6, you can bet the mortgage money that more than a few Republicans will put the blame on Sandy, arguing that the GOP nominee’s supposed surge of momentum was one of the storm’s casualties. There will be something to this, to be sure, but much less than meets the eye. The truth is that if Romney loses, he will have only himself to blame—and the same is true, in the opposite scenario, for President Obama. Neither man ran a campaign worthy of himself, of the country, or of the scale of the challenges the country faces. And both made strategic and tactical errors that, whichever of them bites the dust, history will judge as having done him in.
When it comes to Romney, maybe the pivotal mistake was made nearly four years ago—but the extent to which it haunts him was vividly on display in the campaign’s closing days. At a rally in Ohio on October 25, the Republican suggested that Chrysler was considering shuttering Jeep production in the state and moving it to China. This was false, and the company said so. But that had no effect on Boston, which proceeded to release TV and radio ads insinuating the same, claiming Obama had “sold Chrysler to the Italians, who are going to build Jeeps in China,” and tarring GM similarly. This called forth even harsher repudiations from both auto firms, which pointed out that they are adding U.S. jobs, not subtracting them. “We’ve clearly entered some parallel universe during these last few days,” GM spokesman Greg Martin said, labeling Romney’s gambit as “campaign politics at its cynical worst.”
Cynical, yes. Also desperate. But easy enough to understand. With the result of the election turning to a large degree on the outcome in Ohio, Team Romney has long struggled to counteract the popularity there of Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, which directly touches 82 of the state’s 88 counties—a bailout that Romney not only opposed but opposed loudly, vehemently, and most famously in a 2008 New York Times op-ed piece that bore the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” What exactly Romney was thinking when he wrote that article is unclear. But, if he loses Ohio and the election, doing so may have been the most fateful decision of the campaign, and one that he made long before he was even an announced candidate.
And this is just one of many past positions that have been flesh-piercing thorns in Romney’s side. Of more recent vintage were a series of stances he adopted during his fight for his party’s nomination, all of which cost him dearly with key constituencies. The hard-right line on immigration he took to fend off Rick Perry: anathema to many Hispanics. The ultraconnish posture on Planned Parenthood and contraceptives that he took to thwart Rick Santorum: poison among suburban women. The denialist shadings of his previous statements on climate change, issued to placate the flat-Earth crowd: insanity to young voters. And so on, and so on.
The alienation of these voting blocs, which constitute the ascendant elements of the American electoral landscape, goes a long way to explaining how Romney could be running dead even with Obama nationally but still stubbornly if narrowly behind in many of the battleground states. Were it not for the president’s daunting 40-to-50-point lead with Latinos, for instance, Romney would surely be ahead in Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia, and maybe even New Mexico.
That Romney was able to stage a late rally at all owed much to his sudden lurch to the center from the Denver debate onward. It was a brazen, shameless, and effective gambit, which, if it works, will rewrite the playbook for presidential politics for years to come. Yet for anyone paying the slightest attention, it raised an obvious and troubling question, and one that echoes a query posed four years ago, and not just among his partisan opponents, about Obama: Just who is Mitt Romney, really?
Which brings us, naturally, to the president and his campaign sins. The most glaring, of course, was his no-show performance in Denver—the awfulness of which no amount of revisionist history will ever eradicate. Here was an incumbent coming out of a successful party convention, his polling leads widening nationally and in the swing states, watching his rival (with the release of the surreptitiously taped “47 percent” video) in the process of implosion. An incumbent, in other words, on the verge of sewing up his reelection. And then, with his boot against Romney’s throat, he opted not to behead the bugger but instead to plunge the knife into his own belly.
If Obama loses, then, the Denver debacle will be rightly seen as the proximate cause. But in truth, there were flaws in the president’s reelection effort that made him more vulnerable than he should have been. The campaign that he and his minions have run was built on three fundamental objectives: the abject and total disqualification of Romney as a plausible occupant of the Oval Office, the slicing and dicing of the electorate into microchunks, and the mobilization of the chunks where Obama has a significant advantage. All of these objectives are perfectly valid, and Chicago has executed on the first two with terrific sophistication and savvy. (The verdict on the third will be delivered November 6.) But they have added up to a campaign of relentless negativity, aridness, and smallness—a campaign nothing like the one they ran last time around.
Just how far we are from 2008 was made painfully clear in the days after Sandy, when Obama rekindled some of that old magic after the storm. At an event last Thursday in Wisconsin, he sang a familiar song about how, in moments of peril, “there are no Democrats or Republicans … Just fellow Americans.” This is Obama at his best and biggest, echoing the stanzas that launched him into orbit in his 2004 convention speech. But the echoes have been few and far between in 2012, and when they’ve come, they have sounded rather tinny.
It’s fair enough to say that Obama’s campaign this time, as an incumbent, could not and should not have been a reprise of his maiden turn on the national stage. But it’s equally fair to hold him accountable for not having laid out a second-term agenda either up to his own standards or commensurate with the scale of the problems that the country is staring down the barrel of. Where has been the talk—real talk, hard talk, substantive talk—about immigration, about poverty, about the fiscal cliff? Where has been the talk of global warming, for heaven’s sake? That Obama is light-years ahead of Romney on climate change, as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out in his endorsement of the president last week, is obvious. But out of some combination of calculation and timidity, he has stayed pretty much mum on the issue that he once identified as “a moral challenge of our time.”
If Obama’s largely substance-free campaign were merely depressing, that would be one thing. But the implications of it were also harmful in at least two other ways, both of them political. First, by not putting forth a more nourishing and detailed agenda, he ceded too much ground to Romney, allowing Republicans to argue that all he wants to do in a second term is more of the same as what he did in his first—a problematic proposition in a country where a majority of voters still believe that America is on the wrong track, and more than two thirds tell pollsters they want to see dramatic change from Obama if he is reelected. And the second is that, if Obama does win, he will enter his second term with no real mandate to govern—an affliction from which Romney will suffer, too, of course, given the absurdity and rampant make-believe-ism that pervades his own stated platform.
I said it at the top, and I’ll say it again—even at the risk of sounding like Tom Friedman. From matters fiscal to education to energy to immigration to the basic restoration of upward mobility and the improvement of working- and middle-class living standards, America now confronts a set of once-a-century challenges that will require resolve, ingenuity, and sacrifice to meet. Here’s hoping that after Election Day, the victor, whether that be Obama or Romney, will be able quickly to put behind him his own dismal conduct this past year and rise to the occasion. Because if the next four years look anything like 2012, the impending storm will make Sandy look like a charming summer squall.