Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Romney Meltdown

cross-posted from Dagblog

I was writing a post earlier this week, arguing that Romney was increasingly likely to panic as the election approached, trying to find a "game changer" to help him catch up with Obama, and that these gambles would put him further and further behind. But I held off, because I didn't want to post that kind of political horserace stuff on September 11. Then, before midnight on September 11, Romney had done it.

The truth is, the terrible murder of our ambassador in Libya did present Romney a political opportunity. He just did not understand what that opportunity was. The crisis in Libya was Romney's chance to seem calm, reliable and trustworthy, not to mention patriotic. If he had issued a statement unequivocally supporting the President and standing with him in this moment of crisis, he would have done himself a world of good. First of all, he would have elevated himself to Obama's level, an absolutely crucial thing that Romney apparently does not understand that he needs to do. And Romney would have gotten closer to closing the gaps he needs to close (the national-security gap, the credibility gap, the trustworthiness gap) to let swing voters feel safe enough to switch their votes from Obama.

That Romney, and worse still his campaign staff, did not grasp this just shows how little they understand the challenge, and the opponent, that they are facing.

The Romney camp clearly believe that they can beat Obama because he hasn't delivered on the "hope and change" of 2008. The media are also obsessed with how Obama is "failing" to deliver the outsider-challenger magic from four years ago, as if any incumbent could run on a message of "change." The media and the Romney camp see Obama as a messiah figure who hasn't pulled off the miracle, and think that he can be beaten because he hasn't delivered on the hope thing.

But Mister Hope has never been Barack Obama's only political persona. There's always been another core element to his appeal, which the media has never been interested in, and which I've previously argued is actually the central feature of his campaign personality. Barack Obama projects reliability. He's sober. He's responsible. He communicates his own personal calm to others, calming them. He is No Drama Obama. These traits don't seem sexy to the media, who are mainly interested him as a big-speech orator. They like their candidates dramatic. But No Drama is a big part of what got him elected in 2008, and it's the heart of his appeal to voters now.

Obama got elected in 2008 in the midst of a major crisis. His steadiness during that crisis is what qualified him to be commander-in-chief. No matter how bad things get, Obama does not panic. Never discount the effect that has on swing voters. With Obama in the Oval Office, you know that someone's in charge, and you know you can trust him to keep it together. That is clearly what Obama is running on. His convention speech, which pundits sniffed at as "workmanlike" was in fact geared to making his core No Drama case: I'm the President, you can rely on me, "you hired me to tell you the truth," things aren't where they should be but I'm going to level with you about it. That's an enormously powerful appeal in a country where most voters are still feeling a lot of insecurity.

Romney has never understood the bar he has to clear to win this election. He could not just wait for people to flock to him when Obama the Miracle Worker failed to make manna fall in the desert. I'm not fully convinced that Obama was really campaigning as the Miracle Worker in 2008, but he's definitely not campaigning that way now. He's running as President No-Drama: Barack Steady. Romney needs to talk nervous voters into switching from a reliable and trustworthy incumbent during anxiety-provoking times. To do that, Romney needs to position himself as equally reliable and trustworthy. Then, and only then, he can make a case (based on policy details), that he's a better alternative, with (for example) a better economic program. He hasn't done either of those things, because he doesn't realize he needs to.

A foreign-policy crisis, or any unexpected crisis, is dangerous for Romney because crises highlight Obama's No-Drama credentials, his steadiness. A crisis could also be a golden opportunity for Romney to establish himself as a safe, and therefore viable, alternative to Obama. Of course, having blown his response to this crisis so swiftly and thoroughly, Romney may have no way to recover. But what I expect to happen for the next seven weeks is for Romney to lurch and flail, flail and lurch, trying to make up lost ground. That news-cycle-driven hyperactivity, tactically defensible in a calmer election year, is simply self-destructive in an election dominated by the voters' anxieties, especially when you're running against a steady and reliable incumbent. That is Barack Obama's main promise to voters in 2012: that he's steady as a rock. And Mitt Romney is going to dash himself against him.

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