A year ago, many GOP operatives and activists thought defeating the president would be easy. Unemployment and dissatisfaction would remain high, so all the GOP had to do was nominate a candidate with no obvious flaws and the nation would elect him.
We now stand five weeks from Election Day. Unemployment and dissatisfaction remain high, yet Mitt Romney trails the president in every national poll. Worse, he trails in virtually every poll of key swing states such as Ohio and Virginia, without which he cannot win.
Gloomy Republicans now ask two questions: How did we get here? And how can Mitt win?
The answer to the first is easy, if painful to acknowledge. The president’s campaign, aided by numerous unforced errors from Governor Romney, has painted the wealthy businessman-turned-politician as a paladin of plutocracy. They have told a nation wracked with doubt and worry that if Governor Romney becomes president, he will make decisions to benefit the successful at the expense of the middle and working classes. And, for now, swing voters who supported Obama four years ago believe the caricature.
The state of the campaign is analogous to the classic Christmas movie It’s A Wonderful Life. The Obama campaign has cast the race as between the hardheaded, hardhearted banker of Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter, and the softheaded but kindhearted building and loan manager, George Bailey. No one denies that Mr. Potter is a competent businessman, but everyone knows that when the chips are down, he won’t hesitate to foreclose on a mortgage. Bailey, on the other hand, will make allowances for people who need a hand up when they’re down, even if it’s not the best business decision.
The bottom line in this election is that Americans want to be governed by George Bailey, not Mr. Potter. They may respect Mr. Potter’s business acumen, but they want someone who will give them a break.
If you doubt that caricaturing a political leader as a selfish lout can work, turn your eyes to our great northern neighbor. In last year’s Canadian elections, the Conservatives attacked Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff, who had returned from Harvard to enter politics a few years earlier, as an egomaniac whose return was motivated more by ambition than love of country. Their tag line was succinct and brutal: He Didn’t Come Back For You.
The Obama campaign is running an equally savage and personal campaign against Governor Romney. Their subliminal tag line is also succinct and brutal: He’s Not Running For You.
Ignatieff led the Liberals to their worst election showing in their history and lost his own seat to boot. Governor Romney won’t lead the GOP into the abyss, but if he wants to turn the race around, he needs to do what Ignatieff could never do: convince the average voter he actually cares about them. He needs to show he’s really Bailey with better business sense, not Potter with a better PR agent.