Note: I wrote the bulk of this post in a spasm of Breaking Bad withdrawal Sunday night. I’ve mellowed in my take a bit overnight. But not much. I also note that a few commenters on the previous post are sensing the campaign’s rhythm the same way I am.
I’m loath to predict the outcome of this election (while at the same time - I’m aching to.) but this is about the time in 08 I went on record. Mrs. Palin provided a moderate bump for her team – then Lehman went belly up – and that was that. I tried to hold my powder this time but, being who I am, I find it nearly impossible.
Let’s put it this way: The narratives are embedded now. Set, as it were. For 30 plus years this game been played by the same rules. Most election campaigns in which the outcome was initially in doubt work themselves out in August. 2000 being - sort of – an exception.
August 1988: Dukakis is nominated in July. He more or less takes a 3 week vacation, as only a certifiable fool would. Lee Atwater destroys him via Willie Horton. This August narrative is revisited and crystalized in a Fall debate. Dukakis is asked about the death penalty and the rape and murder of his wife. The question was a complete non sequitur, not unlike the question thrown at Romney earlier this year about birth control. (Still think that question was “random”? That little plant has been watered, massaged and decorated for 8 months now.) Dukakis bobbled the question, of course. How could he not? I’m against the death penalty, unless it’s Kitty, then I’m for it. Screw all your loved ones. The point is that the August narrative set by Atwater paid off in October – not that HW needed it by then. Dukakis was not a strong opponent, but one must plan nevertheless.
August 1992: James Carville choreographs a perfect convention. Clinton’s bounce is enormous. George H.W. Bush declines to do battle with some easy ammo – a youthful image of Clinton at a draft card burning rally in London. Given the moment - Clinton was still a question mark for many – it might have been defining turn. Regardless, HW handed August to Clinton, then handed his convention to Right wing freaks. In August. We skated along with this narrative. Then HW checks his watch in a debate – the August narrative created by Carville and Co. at the DNC - HW is a nice man whose time has passed - is rendered in perfect relief by the old man checking his own watch. The end.
2000 stands alone, but Gore made it much easier for W to slid into the job by shoving aside the best campaigner since FDR, a decision made well before the Fall. He then didn’t even have enough sense to send Clinton to Arkansas. And W’s DUI didn’t come up until the last weekend. If Gore didn’t know about it before that – he should have. Think that type of stuff doesn’t matter or candidates need to be “nice” – think again. We all know where nice guys finish. In the early Fall of 2000, ‘Bush is not trustworthy’ would have played. Instead Gore allowed himself to be taken down as untrustworthy. Dumb, dumb, dumb. I’m sure Gore had opposition research that made Bush into a lying fiend. He chose to play defense.
August 2004: Kerry is entirely viable. People are annoyed with W. He’s beatable. Rove then trashes Kerry in August. Kerry – a political moron – barely responds for 3 weeks! Kerry still makes a race of it, as W was that annoying. But imagine the race if Kerry had punked W back immediately – in August – sunk the Swiftboat on the spot, and buried W with National Guard stories. The difference in 04 happened…in August.
We can extrapolate this cycle through October 2012 with relative ease. Over the summer Axelrod makes Bain the issue. Romney responds – sort of. But he never went on offense. He never made the story not about Bain. Rezko is more recent than Bain. Anybody hear about Rezko this summer? Nope. Romney never changed the damn story. Changing the story is politics 101. Carville jokes about it on a 30 Rock episode called Secrets and Lies , which is to say this basic rule is not a secret. It’s a no brainer.
By mid August Romney is weakened. Ryan helps him a little, but not nearly enough. The RNC is a wash. Probably would have been anyway. The DNC is silly, but Obama has the media (Why doesn’t Romney UNDERSTAND THIS?). Therefore Obama “got a bump”, Romney did not. That meme was always going to be sold no matter what was true … unless Romney had annihilated Obama over the summer. He did not. The Superpacs had the dough to force any story about Obama on us they wanted. Weirdly, all the juicy Obama stuff vanished again, just like 2008. Is the “honorable” John McCain in charge of GOP superpacs?
The Obama narrative was never upended so here is where we are: Obama’s done “okay” as President. He’s more empathetic. The other guy is an awkward, a cold fish, too rich and out of touch.
Where we’re going? Based on observing this sport over decades I predict: The race remains “close” until the debates - with Obama in the lead. Romney “must” convince 5% of the people via the debates. The debates are his “chance”. (You’ll hear that over and over again…this is his “chance”.) Romney will get gotcha questions until one gets him. Even if he never screws up, he’ll be tagged with something, anything. Huffing too much. Or stiff hair. Something. Obama will be “cool under fire”. If Obama screws up it will be news for 24 hours but never – NEVER – a game changer. Even if it clearly is a game changer. We slide into November. Obama wins by a slightly smaller margin than last time. He gloats. Conservatives jump out of buildings, even though the GOP gets the entire Congress. The end.
Again, all this goes back to August. The debates are about Romney, not Obama. If Romney had seared Obama over the late summer an entirely different story would be playing out. If “what we didn’t know about Obama” had become part of the discourse in August – the media could not avoid it in the debates, and Obama would be in the docket. Instead, Romney is. How did that happen with 15% real unemployment? I’ll tell you how: Romney blew it in August.
Outside events often matter. I see very few possibilities for a game changer – and no evidence that Romney’s people would be able to outflank Obama’s if one arose. Still, I’ll give myself an out here. It’s a weird year. Stuff happens. Romney will have opportunities to win. I just don’t see many. Consider this a review and a preview of the next 58 days, not a written in stone prediction. Romney has not already lost the election. With the superpacs he’s got hurricanes of money to unleash. And I find it hard to believe our Wall Street friends will sit by and allow Obama a 2nd term. But they may – and who knows what the snake-in-chief has promised them on the down low. But note this: Superpac spending will move to Senate races if Romney doesn’t change the dynamic pronto.
People who want to be President need to get over their self imposed narrative about being honorable. That moment in our history is past. Over. Sociopaths win. This is our fault, not theirs. Whatever the reason, in order to beat a sociopath one must check certain honorable traits at the door. I’ve been noting since January my hunch that Romney was too damn nice to beat Obama. Mr. Romney is running a campaign for the Presidency of a nation that no longer exists. If he’s going to win he must become ruthless. Is he willing too? Probably not, which speaks well of him. But for the half of the nation that believes Obama is an epic disaster – and they are, in many ways, correct – Romney’s unwillingness to outflank the media and destroy Obama over the summer is galling.