What Obama lost in this campaign

The election is tomorrow (6 Nov) and it seems likely that Obama will win, though it will be close.  The polling guru Nate Silver at the New York Times blog 538 puts Obama’s odds of winning at 86% and — though Karl Rove disagreesSilver’s argument is that Ohio is likely to determine the election and Obama is likely to win Ohio; even if he doesn’t, as this helpful interactive chart indicates, Obama has many more paths to victory than Romney does because of the idiosyncratic way the electoral college system works.

No matter the outcome, this has been a pretty disappointing campaign by Obama.  This is not, as some progressives believe, because Obama’s legislative record is weak — his major policies involved some unfortunate compromises but he got more done than most first-term presidents —  but rather because he has failed to make the case for his second term in a way that will inhibit the House Republicans from engaging in more of their obstructionist antics.  Matt Bai has an essay entitled “Still Waiting for the Narrator in Chief” in yesterday’s Times that is worth reading in full because it makes much the same point but I believe Bai makes a fundamental error in his conclusion.  After arguing that, last time, Obama mistakenly interpreted his victory as a mandate to govern, Bai writes:

It was a crucial misreading of the moment, and if Obama narrowly loses, it will most likely be the moment he wishes he had back. If he wins a second term, however, then the president, who has laid out no clearer policy agenda this time than he did four years ago, will have the opportunity — the imperative, really — to learn from the one mistake [of communication] he has been willing to acknowledge. In this era of elections that teeter on the votes of a handful of states, of campaigns characterized by waxy clichés but very little courageous explanation, an election result isn’t a final verdict on one governing philosophy over another, but rather a signal that the voters have agreed to hear your case. Once you’re in office, the story you tell about and to the country isn’t some barely tolerable performance that distracts you from the job of being president. It is, to a large extent, the presidency itself.

I agree with all of this, except that the campaign is when the people hear your case; the election is when they grant a provisional license allowing you to demonstrate how you will translate those promises into practice.  This distinction matters because the great irony of politics is that people listen to you more carefully as a candidate than as president.  If Obama was going to make his case, this campaign was when he needed to make it.

The case he should have made was simple: invert Ronald Reagan’s famous explanation for why he switched to the Republican Party, which was “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party.  The Party left me.”  There has never been a moment in American history when the Republican Party, through sheer wild-eyed ideological extremism, has abandoned a larger swathe of its constituents than now.  If you grew up as a mainstream Republican, believe tradition has value, that progress should be pursued with caution and a sense of humility, and that there is a necessary but limited role for government in doing what can not or will not be done otherwise you have to be wondering right now how you ended up in league with anti-modern, anti-science, Young Earth, theology-driven, tax rate-obsessed demagogues in a party that has become the last redoubt of white privilege.   But unless you are given somewhere to go you have little choice but to stay in the GOP and hope that the madness passes.  Obama should have addressed these rank and file Republicans directly and articulated how the Democrats now embody their values in a way that their own party leaders no longer do.  This is what Reagan did, in reverse, and it is why we still talk about ‘Reagan Democrats’ as a bedrock of the Republican base.  There are very, very few ‘Obama Republicans.’  They were there to be brought across and this was the election in which to do it but Obama didn’t tell them why they belonged in the Democratic Party.

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