Saturday, October 13, 2012
PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO
These last few days have been tumultuous times for Democrats and progressives. Ever since that debate in Denver, there appear to be two camps forming: one sees Obama's lackluster performance as merely the result of a failed strategy, while the other sees it as both a failed strategy and an innate inability to define and sell a narrative to an audience.
I've made no secret of where I stand. I watched the debate and I am definitely in the latter camp. True, the strategy going into the debate was flawed because it did not adequately anticipate the possibility that Mitt Romney would turn to the center. As improbable as that scenario seemed at the time - remember we were only a couple weeks removed from the 47% video - a campaign must prepare its candidate for all contingencies. It was a monumental blunder that has permitted "Moderate Mitt," as Bill Clinton coined him, to emerge as the centrist. Who, a couple of weeks ago, would've seen that coming?
But, while strategy played a major role in the results that night, the overriding concern that many progressives have had with the President, continues to rear its ugly head time and again. Barack Obama, for whatever reason, is simply incapable of relating to an audience. It's as though the very thought of having to explain himself is beneath him. You saw it clearly that night. The President, several times, looked irritated and agitated as he spoke. That was when he wasn't being dismissive.
And that's why I'm not entirely sure that the reprieve that Joe Biden granted him on Thursday won't be in vain. Fact is, I'm not at all convinced that this president clearly understands what his mission is in these debates. Listening to some on the Left, I begin to understand what the dilemma is.
The last three election cycles have been wave elections, insofar as the party in power got routed. In '06, the Republicans lost both houses of Congress. They followed that up by losing the White House in '08. But in 2010, it was the Democrats' turn to eat some humble pie as they ceded majorities in both chambers. It's my belief that both parties have, for obvious reasons, misinterpreted the results of those elections. It has become painfully obvious that the driving force behind all three elections has been a growing dissatisfaction within the electorate with the power structure in Washington. Voter frustration - far more than ideology - has been motivating voters over the last few years.
So how does this tie in with the debates and the recent turn in the poll numbers? Simple. Voters are looking for someone who they feel can fix Washington and get things moving again. For one night, Mitt Romney gave them a glimpse of what they had been looking for the last few years. Moderate Mitt made his debut to a national audience and received the political equivalent of a standing ovation.
I have long felt that the Democratic strategy over the last few months of demonizing Mitt Romney, while initially successful - had one potential inherent risk: the etch-a-sketch moment. Without exception, every single pundit who covered Romney, from his years as governor of Massachusetts to even his failed senate bid years earlier, all knew he was at heart a chameleon. He could contort himself into any position necessary to get the results he was after, whether in his business career or his political one.
Think about it: a former governor from one of the most liberal states in the country, running to the right of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich during the Republican primaries, and prevailing. How's that for being a contortionist?
Throughout the early stages of what has become the most bizarre general election in over a generation, the Obama campaign didn't exactly break a sweat making Romney look like the second coming of Thurston Howell III. His campaign pretty much took care of that. And when they needed a helping hand, the negative ads were quite successful. Even before the conventions, Romney's overall likability was considerably lower than Obama's.
And it wasn't just Romney who was getting raked over the coals. His whole Party was being exposed as the extremists that they are. The antics of Todd Akin, underscored just how far removed from the mainstream the GOP is. It is the primary reason why Democrats now have an excellent chance of retaining control of the Senate.
But getting back to Romney, the piling on, as it were, had one negative drawback. It didn't permit Obama to develop his own personal argument for why he should be reelected. For the last few months, his campaign has been busy taking advantage of one Romney gaffe after another. The result was a substantial lead in most of the swing states and talk of another electoral rout in November.
And then it happened. What had been anticipated for months finally came to fruition. Mitt Romney took to the stage and basically disavowed almost his entire campaign platform. In 90 minutes he not only managed to take away the only concrete advantage the Obama campaign had on him, he gave the remaining undecided voters in the audience a reason to reconsider him for president.
Small wonder Obama looked dazed and confused. I saw it and I still can't believe it. Neither did most progressives, who are now understandably concerned. Some pundits are openly questioning whether the election is already lost. In just over a weak, the sentiment among many of them has gone from cautiously optimistic to practically panic stricken.
Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Beast was simply beside himself:
"I've never seen a candidate self-destruct for no external reason this late in a campaign before... I'm trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it's hard to see how a president and his party recover. I'm not giving up. If the lies and propaganda of the last four years work even after Obama had managed to fight back solidly against them to get a clear and solid lead in critical states, then reality-based government is over in this country again. We're back to Bush-Cheney, but more extreme. We have to find a way to avoid that. Much, much more than Obama's vanity is at stake."
Wow, that was pretty brutal, and I agree. Denver was a game changer.
And now the man who basically saved the country from another Great Depression, as well as saved the auto industry, not to mention killed bin Laden, has to go up on that stage next Tuesday and do two things: he has to expose Romney's deception in a way that doesn't diminish who he is and he has to speak to his list of accomplishments without appearing to be boastful. The former should be easy; the latter will be far more problematic. That's because Obama's biggest problem all along has been communicating who he is and where he's going. He admitted as much in an interview he did earlier in the year on 60 Minutes. And now that Mitt Romney has peddled himself off as the next Great Communicator, that job just became far more challenging. It's hard enough climbing Everest once, but twice?
And yet that is precisely what Barack Obama must do next week in Hempstead, New York. He must kill two birds with one stone and he has to do it under the most difficult of circumstances: a town-hall meeting format.
He's no Bill Clinton - we know that all too well. The real question is can he be Barack Obama and will that be enough?
We'll find out Tuesday.