The third and final presidential debate did little to change the race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, who are tied with just two weeks to go. Even so, this week’s inconsequential contest provides a key of sorts to understanding the election.
In the first debate -- which was consequential and then some -- Romney abruptly changed from the severely conservative Republican he’d presented to voters during the primaries to the reassuringly pragmatic moderate he’d seemed as governor of Massachusetts. It was an audacious move, and one that strains credulity, in two respects: for the sheer distance in ideology he had to walk back, and for the timing, because he left this second outrageous pivot so late in the campaign.
In the last debate, focused mainly on foreign policy, he moved further toward moderation. He struck a conciliatory tone and found little in what Obama said to disagree with, making the encounter in one sense a nonevent. He was cautious to a fault, careful to avoid seeming recklessly hawkish, allaying concerns that under his leadership the U.S. might blunder into another war. This peacemaking Romney couldn’t have won the Republican nomination. But he could very well win on Nov. 6.
The cipher to understanding this election is to ask, why didn’t Obama beat Romney to it? Why didn’t he deny his Republican opponent the middle ground of U.S. politics by seizing it himself?
At the outset, he was closer to the center than Romney was. And for Obama, this was far less of a stretch. Yet he’s fought a campaign aimed less at the middle of the electorate than at the Democratic Party’s base -- playing on class war and adopting as its overriding goal, at times almost its whole purpose, a tax increase on the rich.
If Obama should lose this election, many will say it was because the economy was weak and because the president is black. Actually, it will be because he fought it as a failed progressive rather than a successful centrist.
Certainly, the economy is a negative for the incumbent, but much less than generally supposed. Most voters understand all too well that the president inherited the worst recession since the 1930s, and that the recovery was going to be a long, hard haul. To be sure, they’re asking whether his policies are helping, and they are far from convinced. They’ve noticed his silence on where his economic policies go from here. But the mere fact that the economy is weak wasn’t fatal to Obama’s prospects.
As for race, the fact that Obama is black has been more an asset than a liability and it remains so. There’s racism in America, but there’s also an immense desire to overcome it. The voters swinging back to Romney aren’t racist, or they wouldn’t have supported Obama in 2008. Remember the joyous inauguration of 2009. The political center of the country was thrilled and proud to have elected a black president: an exceptionally talented man, and the best possible salve for the nation’s unhealed racial wounds.
Every voter who chose Obama in 2008 still wants him to succeed. But not all are convinced he can, and that’s partly because he has stopped trying to be the president he said he’d be. The need to fix Washington, the need for a bridge-building, post-partisan presidency was uppermost in centrist voters’ minds when they elected Obama, and he’d made that the core of his campaign. Washington is still broken -- more so than before -- and Obama is no longer even trying to mend it.
A fair response to this would be, can you blame him? After 2008, an increasingly radical Republican Party dedicated itself to ensuring Obama’s failure. It made compromise difficult and often impossible. On health-care reform and the fiscal stimulus of 2009 -- the signature achievements of Obama’s first term -- the president was forced to give ground and got nothing in return. The pattern repeated again and again. How can it be fair to criticize Obama for failing to build bridges?
The president’s error wasn’t that he refused to compromise. It was that he compromised so reluctantly, denying himself ownership of his own policies and making every accomplishment seem like a defeat.
He should have boasted about his ability to get big, important things past an unyielding Republican Party. He should have boasted about the tax cuts in the fiscal stimulus, rather than allowing them to appear as if they were ground out of him as a concession to Republican priorities. (If he had, he might have won a bigger stimulus.) He should have explained why health-care reform without the so-called public option was a great success, pushing back against the view of many in his own party that this and other compromises rendered the effort largely pointless.
Obama could have been a strong centrist, which would have aroused even louder complaints from the Democratic left. Or he could have been a weak progressive, constantly on the retreat. He chose to be the latter. Policy-wise, the result might have been much the same: a stimulus with more tax cuts and less public investment than Democrats wanted and a health-care reform resting much more heavily on the existing private-insurance model than progressives would have liked. The crucial difference is that Obama the muscular centrist could have taken credit for these achievements -- which is what they are -- in a way that Obama the battered progressive has been unable to.
He would have been able to campaign on them, rather than leaving them unloved and unsold. He would have looked in charge rather than at the mercy of intransigent Republicans. He would have seemed his own man rather than an instrument of Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats. He would have been the president who never stopped trying to fix Washington. Above all, he would have been ideologically aligned with the swing voters who decide elections.
Many in his party would have despised him for it, just as they despised Bill Clinton -- whom they now revere -- for moving to the center after his midterm setback in 1994. Obama had his 1994 moment in the Democrats’ rout in the 2010 congressional elections. He carried on as though nothing had changed. If anything, he hardened the anticapitalist line around which his campaign for re-election was forming.
The Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction commission -- his own initiative -- gave him another chance to occupy the center and take command of public opinion. Again he was cowed by howls of protest from progressives, and meekly looked away.
None of this would have mattered if he was running against Rick Santorum or some other hardline conservative. Suddenly, though, he’s running against a moderate.
Democrats are correct to say that Republicans in Congress have moved far to the right. They are also correct that the country has taken note and doesn’t like it. Somehow they failed to notice the obvious implication. This vacating of the center gave Obama a historic opportunity to broaden the appeal of his party -- over its activists’ hysterical objections, but so what? -- and lock in a second term. He blew it, and an election he should have won easily will go down to the wire.
(Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Today’s highlights: the editors on the drug shortage behind the meningitis outbreak and on why Palestinians should pursue elections before statehood; Margaret Carlson on why politics is so personal in Massachusetts; Peter Orszag on how states have avoided pension funding problems; Cass R. Sunstein on imagining yourself in 20 years; Ronen Bergman on Hezbollah’s preparations for war.
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