Count me in the camp that is not yet wringing hands about Mitt Romney’s prospects in the fall, largely because this script is so familiar. The narrative of impending doom (or blown opportunity) plays out every four years when Washington’s pundit class is forced indoors because of the heat. In the summer of 2008, the conventional wisdom among Democratic seers was that Barack Obama had hit a glass ceiling due to his disconnect with the white working class and that the campaign had drifted into a vague, impressionistic state. In 2000, the same chattering class pronounced Al Gore a weak, wooden nominee who had wasted the spring and early summer and was in danger of being run off the court by the Bush machine.
It’s not that the summer never matters: John Kerry’s offhanded remark that he had supported the Iraq invasion before he was against it was a precious kind of self-inflicted injury that happened during the summer lull. But for the most part, the fluctuations in campaign performance and the free media squalls of the convention run-up are over-borne by larger electoral forces. The fatigue with the Bush years and John McCain’s inability to separate himself from that record trumped Obama’s lull; the fundamentally even dynamic of the 2000 contest, a race between two broadly popular, non-polarizing figures in a largely contented electorate, was too fixed to be shaken by momentary plot twists. And the list could go on: for every defining moment in June or July, like Kerry’s gaffe, the list of half-time perceptions that proved flat wrong is far larger and more telling.
The fact is that this race is frozen, and polling as recent as today suggests that Romney’s tax returns and the new surface wounds around his private equity days (must the producers of the Batman installment opening this week have chosen as its evildoer a menace named “Bane”, rhymes with “Bain”?) have not changed the race much, if at all. (William Galston, the most perceptive Obamian at the New Republic, agrees).
But Republicans would still be wise to understand the exchange of blows in July as revealing of a pathway that could pry open the deadlock if Camp Romney is not careful.
Specifically, the Obama team, which seems at any given moment overwhelmed or bored with the domestic side of governance, has a way of wearing down its opponents with a disciplined, untroubled capacity at gut-fighting. The already forgotten takeaway of 2007-08 was the extent to which the Obama/Hillary Clinton match turned on two reinforcing strategic narratives. The first was the Obama campaign’s ability to disrupt the flow of the Clinton effort by literally driving them to distraction: the early burst of slime about Bill Clinton’s social life: the jabs at Hillary’s ties to lobbyists; the shots at the 42nd president’s historical legacy; the put-down that Hillary was riding her husband’s coattails; the heavy-handed insinuations that the Clintons had a racial complex that was seeping out into view all looked unbecoming the days they were launched, but they did the damage they were meant to do, by knocking the Clintons off their game and into a defensive crouch.
Second, the Clinton campaign matched Obama’s ruthlessness with its own hesitance about returning fire with the same kind of aggression. It is entirely understandable that the Clintonites pulled their punches on Jeremiah Wright in a party where racial ethnic politics is so primal, far less defensible that they shrunk from leveling sustained fire at Obama’s gamey pattern of avoiding controversial votes in the Illinois legislature, or his links to a notorious influence peddler in Chicago, or even more inexplicable, that it never exposed blue collars and rural Democrats in Indiana and North Carolina to Obama’s far-left leaning record in the trenches of Illinois politics (including a lone wolf vote to reduce imprisonment for sex offenders).
Clinton’s strategists were neither inexperienced nor immobilized: their error was in their conviction that Obama’s manifest greeness and the haziness of his public profile were destined to defeat him. It’s hard not to hear some echoes of that mis-placed confidence in Republican circles now, when the case is made that Obama’s economic record is so weak that voters are bound to reject it. It’s equally hard to miss that Republican frustration this cycle at Obama’s resilience sounds, verse for verse, like the post-mortems in Clintonland around a candidate who seemed so overmatched the first nine months of the race.
Obama’s many acolytes in the press attribute his survival skills to preternatural talents of performance—an account that seems right as long as the slate is wiped clean of an inept campaign to sell healthcare reform, rampant disarray in his economic policy-making, and the unerring link between his poll numbers and the arc of job creation. The more substantial truth is that Obama and his team have mastered the cut and thrust of negative campaigning, and the seamier truth is that the mastery is less genius than a robust tolerance for half-truth and innuendo.
None of that means winning ugly wouldn’t still count. The good news is that Obama’s dark arts haven’t worked yet; the bad news is that they have to work only in their totality, and only on one Tuesday in November.