Romney's Carter delusion

His acceptance speech was perfectly tailored to topple a president he's not running against

Published August 31, 2012 11:19AM (EDT)

There’ve been indications lately that Mitt Romney’s campaign no longer believes it will be enough to depend on widespread economic anxiety for a November victory – that too many swing voters like Barack Obama too much and are too willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because of the catastrophe he inherited.

If this is the Romney team’s new thinking, the speech the GOP nominee delivered last night didn’t reflect it. It was perfectly scripted for a candidate who is confident that the basic dynamics of the race favor him and who sees boldness, specificity and unforced errors as his main obstacles on the road to the White House.

I’ve written before about Romney’s desire to function as a generic candidate, someone likable and competent enough to swing voters who are inclined to vote out President Obama and who lacks any sharp edges that might give them pause. His acceptance speech was as broad and formulaic as this strategy. As Jonathan Bernstein put it:

Everything in it was perfunctory: the biographical section (which was weirdly interrupted by a digression into Neil Armstrong and the space race and by a call-out to every elected Republican woman they could scrape up — the whole thing seemed to have a case of attention deficit disorder); the five-point economic program; the foreign policy section; the stirring rhetoric at the end; and, certainly, the delivery.

Probably the most telling passage came when Romney invoked Ronald Reagan’s famous “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” line:

That is why every president since the Great Depression who came before the American people asking for a second term could look back at the last four years and say with satisfaction: "you are better off today than you were four years ago." Except Jimmy Carter. And except this president.

This president can ask us to be patient. This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault. This president can tell us that the next four years he’ll get it right. But this president cannot tell us that YOU are better off today than when he took office.

Let’s give Romney a pass for not mentioning George H.W. Bush, who flunked the “better off” test in 1992 and was drummed out of office with the lowest share of the popular vote of any president since Taft. This was a Republican convention, after all, and Romney has a warm personal friendship with the 41stpresident. But in calling attention to Carter’s defeat, Romney seemed to indicate that he shares a common view among Republicans about the 2012 race: that it’s a repeat of 1980.

Optimistic Republican voices have been making the claim a lot lately that, just as they were 32 years ago, swing voters are fed up with the incumbent and itching to fire him, and what’s needed from the opposition party is a modicum of reassurance. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made this case to National Journal just a few hours before Romney’s speech:

"I'm not predicting a blowout like we ended up having in '80," McConnell said in an interview. But the mood strikes him as similar. It's an atmosphere "in which people really don't think the guy's done a very good job, and the Democrats are betting on our candidate being inadequate."

The speech Romney delivered is the speech that a candidate who believes he’s running against another Carter would deliver. The problem for Romney and Republicans is that the 2012-as-1980 model doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.

The first problem is that Obama is much more popular as he seeks a second term than Carter was. At this point in 1980, it was common for polls to show Carter with an approval rating in the low 30s, or even in the 20s. And his party was bitterly divided. His initial victory in 1976 had been something of a fluke – he’d understood the ramifications of the Democrats’ radically expanded primary calendar better than anyone else and snuck to the nomination without the support of many of the party’s traditional leaders and interest groups – and he’d alienated huge chunks of the Democratic coalition by governing from the center-right on many domestic issues. This gave rise to Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge, which likely would have succeeded had it not been for the sudden Iran hostage crisis at the end of 1979. As it was, Carter limped to renomination with a majority of his own party saying they disapproved of his presidency.

This just isn’t the case for Obama, whose average approval ratings sits at 47.7 percent in the Real Clear Politics average. That’s hardly enough to guarantee him a second term, or even to make him the clear favorite, but it gives him a fighting chance and puts Obama more in the category of George W. Bush in 2004 – not Carter in 1980. Moreover, Obama’s own party is squarely united behind him. He’s never had a serious problem with his own base, and his approval rating among Democrats consistently clocks in over 80 percent.

The other problem with the ’80 comparison, as John Sides detailed earlier this month, is that Carter actually trailed Reagan throughout that year, sometimes by significant margins. Yes, Carter managed to tighten the race after his party’s August convention, when the Kennedy challenge was extinguished once and for all and many (but not all) of his supporters reluctantly returned to the Carter fold, but Reagan led in the vast majority of polls conducted in 1980. The reason the race isn’t generally remembered that way is that there was a strong sense at the time among the political class that Reagan was far too extreme to win a national election – that his Goldwater-style conservatism would somehow catch up with him and erode his lead before Election Day. But it never did.

Again, Obama is in demonstrably better shape on this front than Carter was. In the wake of the debt ceiling debacle last year, Romney briefly pulled ahead of Obama in polling, but since last October, the president has consistently led in the Real Clear Politics polling average.

The speech Romney gave last night would probably be more than enough to topple a president as weak as Carter. But he’s not running against Carter.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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