If Mitt Romney is his opponent, the president would do well to dust off George W. Bush's 2004 playbook
No two elections are the same. But some are more alike than others, and the 2012 campaign is already showing some intriguing similarities with 2004: a vulnerable incumbent, an opposition party base desperate to drive him from office, and an unimpressive field of would-be challengers devoid of a genuine political star.
The ’04 parallel is most significant when it comes to the GOP race and its front-runner, Mitt Romney. While Romney remains deeply vulnerable within his party, he enjoys sizable advantages in money, name recognition, electability and plain charisma that will be difficult for his foes to overcome. This is especially true if, as expected, Rick Perry soon enters the race and splits key conservative segments with Michele Bachmann. If Romney continues running a smart campaign, he should win the nomination.
If he does, this would be cause for concern for Democrats, because Romney is the GOP’s best choice for the general election. As the party’s most disciplined and telegenic option, he would give President Obama big headaches, as national and swing state polling already suggests. As Nate Silver wrote last week, an Obama-Romney race looks now to be a toss-up.
Here’s where ’04 comes into the picture. The nation’s current economic instability is likely to be a more potent political liability than Iraq was, so Obama figures to face even rougher sledding than Bush did seven years ago. Bush’s winning strategy, though, could provide a blueprint that Obama could use for a campaign against Romney — especially when it comes to how he handled his opponent. From the moment John Kerry captured the nomination to oppose Bush, Republicans made it their singular mission to define him for the nation before Kerry could define himself. And they succeeded.
As candidates, Romney and Kerry are surprisingly similar. Both men made their political careers in Massachusetts, are fabulously rich, and have some awkward personality traits. Just like Romney now, Kerry was seen as his party’s best bet to topple an incumbent loathed by the base. And there’s also the matter of flip-flopping on key policy matters: Romney is as guilty of it as Kerry was.
When the 2004 general election campaign began, the Bush team launched a procession of attacks on Kerry with a deadly precision and didn’t let up until the election was over. Portraying Kerry as a serial equivocator and reinforcing perceptions that he could be aloof, and unapproachable, Republicans brutalized him before he could get out of the gate. Before long, Kerry’s poorly phrased “voted for it before I voted against it” explanation of Senate procedure had been lodged in Americans’ minds for all time.
While perhaps lacking some of Kerry’s foibles, Romney is vulnerable to the same approach. Romney’s painful primary season attempts to play down his enactment of a healthcare reform plan in Massachusetts that became the model for “ObamaCare” is obvious fodder for fall attack ads. And this is hardly the only significant example of Romney’s chameleon tendencies. After all, he launched his career by adopting moderate positions necessary to operate in Massachusetts, and he’s now forsaken them to curry favor with a rabidly right wing Republican primary electorate. Thus, the menu of material available to Democrats to negatively define Romney coming out of the primary would be voluminous, hardly limited to one or two issues.
Using Republicans’ general tack from 2004 could have benefits beyond the original Bush strategy. In 2004, the Democratic base was united to drive Bush from office, and any appeals to win over modern Reagan Democrats were useless. Karl Rove knew this, and the visceral attacks on Kerry were designed to gin up their base and convince just enough wary independents that despite any qualms they may have had with Bush, Kerry was too weak to be trusted. It worked as Bush broke even with Kerry on independents, and won a narrow national majority.
Playing up Romney’s flip-flopping could have two benefits for Democrats, souring swing voters on him while also reminding the GOP base of his past apostasies and depressing their enthusiasm — and turnout — for him.
Of course, the wild card remains the economy, and if unemployment remains at or near its current level, the shrewdness of any Democratic attacks might not matter. Nonetheless, Democrats should be developing a strategy now to neutralize Romney, and the Bush ’04 playbook offers an attractive template. Romney’s vulnerabilities are even more pronounced than Kerry’s were, and Obama could conceivably strip the bark off his candidacy before he can even introduce himself as a viable alternative.
Sometimes, elections can repeat themselves.
Mark Greenbaum is a freelance writer in Washington. More Mark Greenbaum.
More Related Stories
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
- Murkowski: Palin too disengaged to run for Senate
- In IRS scandal, new GOP tactic is ignorance
- Code Pink activist berates Obama at national security speech
- Cuomo: "Shame on us" if New York City elects Weiner
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11