By Elvin Lim
At this time four years ago, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were asking Democratic primary voters to consider the question, “who would be the better president?” This year, Republican candidates are asking their electorate to consider, “who would be worse?” This contrast explains why President Obama has so far resisted the considerable headwind against his re-election.
Although Romney hasn’t locked up the nomination yet, he is the default nominee because nobody else has a clear path to reach the 1144 candidates needed. Romney now has 434 delegates, more than all the other candidates combined, but he’s not even halfway there. Ironically, ponderously winning the nomination by a slow trickle of delegates though the spring and into summer makes Romney weaker than if he had been an underdog who fought his way to the nomination. Instead, with a rebuke here (Iowa) and a rebuke there (South Carolina), Romney’s steady hobble to the nomination looks nothing like the sure-footed candidacies of Richard Nixon (1968) or George Bush (1988). Romney’s tardy move toward Tampa matters because, with the exception of 1992 and 2008, it has been a pattern of American politics since 1964 that whichever candidates wraps up his party’s nomination first also wins the White House.
Having three anti-Romneys also doesn’t help, because the war of attrition tearing at Romney’s side looks nothing like the epic battle between two very serious candidates on the Democratic side in 2008, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Republican voters are tuning out because of the ugly internecine feud at a time when the party ought to be drumming up enthusiasm for the fall. All told, the RNC’s turn to proportional representation for the earlier primaries in this year’s schedule has meant that an already weak field of candidates will yield one among them even more bereft of star power and pizazz than he had begun with. Romney’s best hope looking ahead is that he wins convincingly enough in Alabama this Tuesday so that he shames the Southern candidate, Newt Gingrich, out of the race. It may be bluster, however, but Gingrich has pledged to go “all the way to Tampa.”
All this points to a very negative fall general election campaign, because the president is the only factor that reliably unites all factions of the Republican party. With the economy improving, the clearest Republican way into the White House is a relentless attack on Barack Obama, even if it means invoking implicit racial animus — such as the idea that Obama is a “food stamp president” — if necessary. But some conservative commentators are no longer sure if even that strategy will work. Who would have thought that for reasons beyond his own doing two years after the Tea Party insurgency that gave the president a shellacking, Obama is now in the best position he has been for a second term since his inauguration.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.