The good news of the terrible news of the last couple of weeks is that there's a lot more realism about the forces at work in this election. Incumbent presidents always have a tricky re-election campaign, because they have to balance a defense of their record with a set of proposals for the next term. Often, the mandate is vague – and you won't find a better summary of the risks and opportunities involved than Ryan Lizza's superb new piece in The New Yorker.
What the Obama campaign has to do is relatively simple: stop being defensive about their record, connect the politics of the past two years to the GOP's fierce resistance to change and then ask for help in completing it. I made a brief case along these lines last Friday. Tomasky piths it up:
The story, in a nutshell, is this: we inherited a total disaster, things are getting better, and Romney will bring us back to disaster.
The problem is that the GOP looks likely to remain a powerful force in the second term, barring some miracle in November. In fact, I'd argue Romney's best case is that with a Republican Congress, he will be able to end the gridlock and move the country forward. The trouble with this, of course, is that a total GOP government would be a toxic brew of Paul Ryan's economics with Dick Cheney's diplomacy and Bryan Fischer's open mind. But if you're a low-information swing voter and associate gridlock with recession, you can see the appeal of at least some movement somewhere.
So what Obama has to do – what he can only do – is focus on the specifics of what must happen before the end of the year. He should remind us that without some compromise, we will have what's been called Taxmageddon: all the Bush tax cuts will be sunsetted, unemployment benefits for 3 million Americans will end, payroll taxes will rise two percent for employees, and sequestration will start being enforced. Even Romney has said that that combination would plunge us and the world back into recession, so he won't go there. So if both candidates say this is unacceptable, the most obvious choice we currently face in this election is: which solution to this looming crisis is the most effective?
This where Obama has the edge in the arguments, it seems to me: he says that the Bush tax cuts should only be sunsetted for those earning over $250,000, unemployment benefits should continue, the payroll tax should be kept where it is (to prevent a slide into a double dip), but sequestration should proceed. But he should also say he'd throw all this up in the air if the GOP were willing to raise serious new revenues via elimination of tax deductions, along with further cuts in defense, in return for real entitlement reform. In other words, he must put front and center his view of debt reduction: entitlement cuts, defense cuts and revenue increases via tax reform. Essentially a more Democratic version of Bowles-Simpson. Then he has to just call Romney out on refusing to raise any taxes on the very wealthy. If it's framed this way, Obama wins.When you're grappling with debt and one sides insists on only tackling spending and not revenues, it's being perverse.
Running simply against austerity, as if the debt did not exist, is not, I think, a realistic option. Obama should run rather on the most equitable way to cut the long-term debt, and then insist on some short-term easing on the imminent austerity. And he has to combine this with one signature and clear second-term commitment.
My view is that it should be immigration reform, along Bush's lines (as Lizza discusses). This is something even the most recalcitrant Republicans would be leery of demonizing, especially if Romney lost the election because of the Latino vote. Those whites who are incensed by illegal immigration are voting for Romney anyway. More to the point, the sane people left in the Congressional GOP know that it splits their party and opposition to it could kill their future. If Obama invokes the legacy of Bush for the reform, it could be brutal for them.
Tomasky's critique of this is that the Republicans will be just as crazy after the election as now, and so all of this is academic. I don't agree. We live in a polity where one party has essentially stopped treating the other party as in any way legitimate representatives of the American people. There is no willingness to compromise. The question is not whether this fever will break; the question is how does a country function unless it breaks? One soft spot where it could be tackled is immigration. It's one area where the GOP is rightly alarmed about its own future. If it is front and center in this election campaign, alongside a balanced approach to long-term debt and short-term stimulus, you can begin to see why many would want to back Obama.
So far, the Obama campaign has seemed to me overly negative and tactical, as opposed to positive and strategic. I'm not saying the Bain ads should be pulled; they're legit and they appear to be working. I'm not saying that Romney's extreme wealth and privilege should not be highlighted. But I am saying that Obama's core strength must stay what it was last time: sane, centrist, profound reform. He can say in his first two years, he made a massive downpayment but has been stymied ever since. This election is about empowering him to finish what he began. And to have voted for him in 2008 and not vote for him now makes no sense at all.
We all knew there would be brutal resistance to real change. So are we really going to bail when resistance makes its strongest counter-attack? Or will we push the president to keep his promises while mobilizing to ensure he can recapitalize in this election and finish the job? I know where I am on this. Do you?
(Photos: Mandel Ngan, Brendan Smialowski/Getty)