the national interest

The 2012 Election Is Bush-Kerry in Reverse

U.S. President George W. Bush (R) and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) shake hands before the start of a debate
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The parallels between this year’s presidential election and the one we had eight years ago are striking. Incumbent president with middling approval ratings faces rich guy from Massachusetts with a reputation for flip-flopping. Hilarity ensues. By “hilarity” I mean, specifically, that people get extremely worked up about a series of procedural controversies, and then the two parties trade places on them the next time around.

It is actually kind of eerie how closely the two elections have tracked each other. How many issues like this have the parties switched places over? Let us count them:

Air Force One. At the moment, Republicans are raging at President Obama for having made a series of official speeches, at government expense, that also dovetail with his campaign themes. The Washington Free Beacon finds this so outrageous it actually quotes Solzhenitsyn — at length! — to denounce the “lies.” And certainly Obama has been engaging in some pretense here. Conservatives were distinctly less outraged in 2004, when USA Today reported that Bush was “using Air Force One for re-election travel more heavily than any predecessor.”

Big donors. In 2004, Bush had put together a powerful fund-raising network, and Democrats were dependent on large donations from outside groups. Republicans attacked the Democratic donors. The donors felt it was outrageous they should be attacked. (Large donor George Soros: “I have been demonized by the Bush campaign.”) In response, Dinesh D’Souza wrote in National Review:

Soros begins with a plea for personal sympathy. Such pleas are always dubious when they come from billionaires who are trying to pass themselves off as victims. But as the man who is the leading contributor to groups like, groups that have launched some of the most vicious attacks against President Bush, shouldn’t Soros expect to be “demonized” in return?

Now, of course, Republican billionaires are making huge donations, Democrats are attacking them, and the GOP billionaires and conservative pundits are waxing hysterical over the unfairness of the poor billionaires enduring public criticism.

Flip-flopping. How important a character flaw is flip-flopping? Just about the most important thing in the world, said everybody in the Republican Party in 2004. It was so vital, Bush insisted in 2004, it was better to vote for a candidate you don’t agree with than to vote for one who has changed his mind on something. (“Even when we don’t agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.”) Even Mitt Romney gave a speech ridiculing John Kerry as a flip-flopper. Now, it’s not such a bad quality, after all, to have the ability to admit when you’re wrong.

Negativity. The challenger thinks it’s a devastating admission of failure that the incumbent has to tear down his challenger rather than run a positive campaign. Amazingly, Karl Rove, who defined this tactic in 2004, now weeps bitter tears almost every week over Obama’s meanness.

Politicizing foreign policy. In 2004, Democrats were furious that Bush used the 9/11 attacks as a political asset. Now, Republicans are indignant that Obama is running on having killed Osama bin Laden. (Of course, the difference is that 9/11 was at best something Bush had no responsibility for and at worst a colossal blunder, while killing bin Laden is an actual accomplishment.)

Attacking the rich guy. Obama implicitly contrasts himself with Romney’s wealthy upbringing, and his allies have explicitly highlighted Romney’s vast fortune. Republicans consider this vicious class warfare. If you want to see some real attacks on a guy just for being rich, get a load of this:

The Republican National Committee produced a game called Kerryopoly, in which a player earning $40,000 a year “can land on properties like Nantucket, worth $9.18 million, Beacon Hill, worth $6.9 million, or Idaho, worth $4.9 million.” A television ad from a pro-GOP group mockingly lists his assets. “Designer shirt: $250. Forty-two-foot luxury yacht: $1 million. Four lavish mansions and a beachfront estate: over $30 million.”

It does seem that, at least so far, the Republican Party has a greater capacity than the Democrats to generate outrage over something they find perfectly fair when their side is doing the same or worse. Still, Democrats are hardly immune. And it’s worth it for liberals to keep this in mind: Remember how outraged you felt eight years ago, when the president was exploiting his incumbency for reelection and tearing down his opponent? That’s how Republicans feel now.

The 2012 Election Is Bush-Kerry in Reverse