The 2012 race has turned into one of Aesop’s classic fables. After each new media blitz against the no-frills Mitt Romney, a far cooler President Obama races ahead three or four points in the polls — only to fall back to about even as the nation’s attention fades.
Meanwhile, the Romney tortoise, head down on the campaign trail, keeps lumbering along toward the November finish. There is nothing fancy day in and day out — only the steady plod of a good-enough convention, workmanlike speeches that pass muster, a Midwestern vice-presidential nominee who is informed and reliable, and the standard conservative correctives offered to liberal excesses.
We have now gone through Obama’s various caricatures of a scary Mitt Romney — the financial buccaneer who sends his wealth abroad, the misogynist who wages a war on women, the veritable racist whose proposed budget cuts are aimed mostly at the nonwhite, the ageist bent on dismantling Social Security, and the callous man who cares little when the innocent die in the wreckage of his Bain profit-making. At each juncture, President Obama gains some traction, picks up a few points, and then slowly slides back to even.
How does Romney’s thick tortoise shell withstand these frenetic assaults as he keeps trudging along?
Barack Obama does not do well as Richard Nixon. Four years ago, he ran on a new civility, an end to name-calling, and an abhorrence of partisan bickering. And an unknown Obama without a record was largely able to abide by his professed ethos in 2008. After all, it was easy to do so: Donations poured in, the McCain campaign was as timid as it was polite, and the banalities of untried hope and change mesmerized millions.
But now, all the new negative advertising only reveals Obama’s hypocrisy. By the same token, Romney’s challenge has always been that he is blandly and predictably straight-arrow. If that normalcy means he cannot give soaring hope-and-change speeches, it also ensures that casting him as a multifarious sinner is preposterous and reflects more poorly on the accuser than on the intended target.
Obama cannot run on his record of Obamacare, a reset foreign policy, Keynesian deficit priming, and the preference of wind and solar power to fully developing vast new finds of oil and gas. What ultimately doomed incumbents Jerry Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H. W. Bush in 1992 was that they likewise did not wish to talk about the economy on their respective watches, but instead alleged that their opponents would be far worse, to the point of being unfit. Such tactics usually don’t work.
In Obama’s case, 43 months of 8 percent–plus unemployment, laggard GDP growth, $4-a-gallon gas, a precipitous drop in average family income, record numbers of people on food stamps, serial $1 trillion budget deficits, and $5 trillion in new national debt can no longer be packaged as either a “summer of recovery” or George W. Bush’s legacy — and so they are left unmentioned
The current presidential race remains a seesaw battle because, for all the advantages of incumbency and the president’s charisma, the public is not happy with the Obama administration’s record on the economy. And it does not believe — at least at this juncture — that Romney is the villain that the Obama campaign has portrayed.
Yet Romney trudges rather than sprints ahead because he is no glib Ronald Reagan. He is also the first Mormon candidate in a general election and a very rich man at a time when Americans are growing angrier by the day that they are far poorer than they were four years ago.
The country is also not quite ready to confess that it went a little crazy in 2008 and voted for the embarrassing banalities of “hope and change” offered by a little-known senator with a thin résumé and little national experience. Again, no voter likes to admit that he was led to the polls in a trance by the mellifluous music of a pied piper.
Obama’s present paradox is that the more he goes negative against Romney, the less the slurs seem to stick, and the less presidential the self-avowed ethical reformer appears. Yet because the economy is not going to noticeably improve by November, Obama believes he must continue in hopes of discovering a bona-fide Romney scandal, or that he must claim the country is threatened abroad and in need of national unity.
Barring a real recovery or a sudden war, the steady, plodding Romney tortoise is ever so slowly winning the race against the flashier — surging, yet always fading — Obama hare.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.