Jay Cost is a staff writer for The Weekly Standard and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic.
There is dissension in the Democratic ranks on President Obama's re-election strategy. His campaign team has decided to focus on Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital — which ended over a decade ago — as an illustration of what a Romney presidency might look like. Loose-lipped Democrats like Harold Ford Jr., Ed Rendell, and even rising stars like Deval Patrick and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, have publicly said they're uncomfortable with this approach. And this echoes the sentiments of some off-the-record Democrats.
What to make of this?
Well, for starters, there really is no such thing as "fair play" in presidential campaigns. Look at the first contested battles between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson some 200 years ago and you'll see accusations of godless radicalism and incipient monarchism being tossed around without a second thought. And those two worked together on the Declaration of Independence! Beyond what the law says, there is no right and wrong in presidential campaigns; it really is only a matter of what will sell to the public and what won't.
What I find much more interesting is how terribly lame Team Obama's strategy is. According to the president himself, a centerpiece of their campaign is to turn Mitt Romney into some kind of amoral corporate raider. There are two, enormous problems with this.
First, Team Obama does not enjoy a monopoly on defining Romney. The latter will have more than a little say in how the public comes to view him. And — contrary to what you might read in the lefty blogs and the Washington Post -- he actually has a good story to tell. He successfully managed the Olympics, he governed with the Democrats in Massachusetts, he is a devout family man, and he gives generously to his church. Even the Bain story is more than contestable; the Romney camp should feel comfortable running on his record there, since there are a lot of positives to draw from it.
Second, it's not so much that Team Obama is using Bain, which would be an inevitable part of any campaign (Democratic or Republican). It's rather that they have so little else to work with. What is the positive message of the Obama campaign? What is the vision for a second term? I'm not seeing much of anything on that front.
And that points to a core mistake that the Obama White House has made time and time again: they've ignored public opinion. Poll after poll shows that the president is unpopular in general, and specifically on the economy, but those same polls indicate that most people do not blame him for the recession. Obviously, he's saddling some of the responsibility for the weak recovery — but there is more to it. Specifically, the government has appeared to have done nothing about the problem since February 2009.
The Obama White House pivoted immediately to health care and cap and trade after the stimulus was passed, and they pressed on with those initiatives even as public disapproval mounted and the evidence grew that the economy was so terribly weak. Then, after the 2010 midterm, the president chose not to work in a serious, bipartisan manner with Congress, instead preferring to send up to Capitol Hill symbolic measures with no chance of passage, so that he could demagogue his opposition as a bunch of radicals.
Today, it is a sacred part of the liberal catechism that the Republicans are to blame for the gridlock, but that's just not true. Imagine if Obama had sent a piece of legislation first to the Democratic-controlled Senate, something with a reasonable chance of passage. It gets through the upper chamber, which would put pressure on the House Republicans either to pass the bill or offer an alternative that Obama could sign. That could have worked, but Obama never tried that. This was a grievous mistake, in my judgment.
(And just in case you think this "radical GOP" meme really has some underlying purchase on what's happening, remember that the Beltway establishment said the exact same thing about the 104th Congress, elected in 1994. Yet Clinton dealt with them, producing a balanced budget, tax cuts, a line-item veto, health care portability, and welfare reform. Sure, the relationship was acrimonious at times, but they got stuff done, and Clinton had many positives to take into the 1996 campaign.)
Liberals might read this and conclude, "C'mon, Cost! You'd only be happy if Obama dropped out and endorsed Romney!" Well, that would be nice, but that's not my point. Obama could be running as a progressive Democrat, but with a popular legislative record. That would insulate him, at least a little bit, from the persistent weakness of the economy. He would be in much better shape if he had a well-liked piece of legislation from 2009-2010 and at least something from 2011-2012 — some kind of compromise on something important, to show the country that he can work productively with the other side.
But he doesn't have any of that. The first half of his term produced reviled legislation, and the second half has produced nothing at all. So, all he has to run on is Bain.
That's some pretty weak tea, if you ask me.