How A Beleaguered Democratic President Reversed The Tide

The Republican candidate for president was certainly a handsome man. People had to grant him that, if they were willing to grant him nothing else. Born in Michigan, he had made his bones as a northeastern governor, and there was no question that the man looked like a president.

The incumbent Democratic president was struggling. Having taken on the controversial issue of universal health care coverage early in his administration, he had lost his initial high approval ratings, and his party had been crushed in the midterm elections. Faced with stubborn Republican opposition in Congress, determined to deny the president any victories he could use as a springboard for the election, he had been unable to accomplish much of anything domestically since the Republicans had won the midterms. His major domestic accomplishment, an executive order to end discrimination in the military, had been met with howls of outrage on the right and resistance from the military brass, who claimed “unit cohesion” would suffer. His advisers had warned him that this move could cost him many of the states he needed to win the election.

The president was likeable enough, but sometimes he seemed to have a hard time making his case with the electorate. He was often unfavorably compared with the previous Democratic president, whose legendary ability to connect with the common people made him the most popular political figure of his day, even now, these many years after he had left office; the current president, compared with the last Democrat to hold the office, often seemed a bit wanting. Even the former president’s wife, a political legend in her own right, was more popular than he was.

Although the president had won some spectacular victories overseas, domestically he was floundering, and the people were ready for a change.

On the other side of the aisle, the Republicans were giddy. Their midterm triumph and the president’s continued struggles led them to believe it was a foregone conclusion that they would win the White House and Congress in the next election. The only question was whether they would nominate the favorite, the moderate northeastern governor who had run well but lost four years previously, or one of his more conservative rivals.

The truth of the matter was that the right-wingers did not trust this frontrunner of theirs, and they wanted someone more conservative. They placed their hopes in a far-right, Rust Belt Senator. But the conservatives were fractured, and the northeastern governor, though he was too moderate for the base, won the nomination nonetheless. Querulous conservatives, though unhappy with their nominee, grumbled a bit but fell in line. Any Republican, they felt, would be better than this president, and any Republican would surely beat him.

But certain problems began to emerge for the Republican candidate. Before long, it became clear that his personality, aloof and standoffish, was a liability. He was stiff and ham-handed, and even though he had been raised in the Midwest, he found it difficult to connect with the common people in that key region. (One of his contemporaries had remarked that he was the only man she knew who could strut while sitting down.) He also found, to his dismay, that he could not shake the record of the previous Republican president, whose economic policies had created the greatest economic disaster in recent memory.

The Democratic president, meanwhile, had begun to find his stride. After struggling for most of his administration to find his own voice, he had rediscovered himself on the campaign trail and came alive on the stump. What had once been considered an impossible campaign for the Democrats to win now began to show signs of hope, and the polls began to move in the president’s direction. Still, Republicans believed they would win. How could they lose, against this president?

When all the dust settled, the unbeatable Republican ticket had lost, and it wasn’t close. The Democratic president, to everyone’s surprise, had come back from the political dead and won comfortably, with more than 300 electoral votes. He had managed to win key states such as Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa and Nevada, all of which had been in doubt but had ultimately gone Democratic. His party had also reversed the Republican gains from the midterm elections two years previously as voters deserted the GOP in the final weeks of the campaign.

By now, you’ve probably figured out that this little tale was the story of the 1948 election featuring President Harry S. Truman and New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.

What, you were thinking this story was about somebody else?


The Real "Dirty Harry"

The Romney campaign committed a huge error when it attacked the Obama administration as “weak” in the wake of the killing of four Americans, including our ambassador, Christopher Stevens, in Libya. But the biggest error Romney made wasn’t an error of fact (although it was, indeed, a factually challenged statement).

The biggest error was a tactical one: attacking the commander-in-chief in the wake of a tragedy for our nation. When we are attacked, most Americans rally around the president, whomever that may be. It happened after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

It is generally expected, at such a time, that politicians on either side of the aisle will refrain from attacking or blaming the leader of the nation. If the Democrats had attacked George W. Bush in 2001 for being caught flatfooted on 9-11, they almost certainly would have paid a horrendous political price.

While it remains to be seen how the public will react to this knee-jerk reaction by the Romney team, one thing looks crystal clear: the Romney attacks on this issue appear to be out of sheer desperation. The polling data has been breaking in President Obama’s favor ever since the Democratic National Convention kicked off in Charlotte nearly two weeks ago, and none of the Romney attacks seem to be taking hold.

When it became clear that the struggling economy alone would not get Romney over the top, the Romney campaign began throwing everything it could at the wall and praying that something, anything, would stick. The result has been a disjointed, unfocused, scattershot approach that has not helped Romney move the needle at all. Unless you count moving the needle in the wrong direction, that is.

As each new attack fails, the Romney campaign has placed itself on a hair-trigger setting to jump on every opening that appears like an opportunity to hurt the president politically. The attack in Libya and the unrest in the Muslim world over the ridiculous anti-Islam movie produced by some whackadoodle religious nut gave the Romney team another perceived opening to return to a favorite Republican attack line: that the Democrats are “weak” on foreign policy.

The Republicans have trotted this tired old meme out in every election for nearly 40 years, and they have grown accustomed to this ridiculous attack bearing political fruit. Their messaging on this issue had been so effective that, after 9-11, I heard even Democrats expressing gratitude that we had a Republican in the White House at that moment. (For the record, I was not one of them.)

So they’re trotting out the “Democrats are weak, weak, weak” line because it’s always been their go-to attack line in the past. But there’s a problem: it’s not working anymore.

The Romney campaign has found a lot of things to lie about this election year, and some of those lies have been fairly effective. Team Romney has run advertising claiming that the president robbed Medicare of $700 billion to pay for Obamacare, and that he took the work requirement out of welfare. These ads were nearly as effective as they were false. Romney’s polling improved after launching both of these attacks, even though they were roundly attacked by the news media as completely and provably false. But when it comes to these issues, as well as the ridiculous lies about health care bill (death panels, anyone?), they are so complex and murky that few average Americans even really know the truth. (Even some of the members of Congress who voted for the health care bill didn’t know what was in the thing.) As a result, a lot of average Americans—having no clear and easy proof that these claims are untrue—are susceptible to the lies.

The problem, conversely, with the “Democrats are weak” argument is simple. It’s a hard argument to sell when it is widely known that the Democratic president ordered in the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden. This would be the same bin Laden, as is also widely known, who eluded President Obama’s Republican predecessor for nearly eight years.

Yes, I know that the right goes apoplectic anytime anyone says “Obama Got Osama,” but it is a fact. He who makes the call gets the credit, as inevitably would have happened had President Bush succeeded in getting bin Laden. The SEAL team went in on the president’s orders, as a result of the intelligence that the president’s team gathered. The SEALs could not have carried out the operation without the president’s order. It was a highly risky operation that included violating the sovereignty of a supposed U.S. ally, Pakistan, and if it had failed, does anyone doubt that it would have destroyed Obama politically? (I think it is clear that same people who refuse to give him any credit for the mission’s success would not have waited half a second to blame him if it had failed.)

To order the mission, against the advice of his own vice president and some other key advisers, took real guts on the president’s part (and of course, it must be said, spectacular courage and great work by the SEALs, who obviously bore far greater risk than the commander-in-chief did).

The mission that killed bin Laden is emblematic of the calm, cool and effective overseas policies of the president. Does anyone remember how he sent in special forces, early in his term, to kill the Somali pirates who had hijacked an American vessel? Or how our quiet leadership in the Libyan civil war resulted in the overthrow of longtime terrorist supporter Moammar Qaddafi?

These three missions all had two very important things in common: 1) they all succeeded and 2) not a single American lost his or her life as a result of any of these operations. If these are the results of a president’s supposed weakness in his usage of American military might, what exactly does it take to be considered strong?

The fact is, the Obama approach to foreign policy and his wise usage of our military—pinpointed, targeted special forces strikes as opposed to massive, scattershot overreactions with heavy losses of life—demonstrates that a cool hand is more effective than a hot head. And people generally know the difference. A measured (one might even call it “conservative”) approach that accomplishes the mission and prevents needless deaths is the smart move. It might not be very satisfying to those who want to go in with guns blazing to make a point. But it’s safe to say that the SEAL team mission to Pakistan made a much greater—and certainly more final—impression on Osama bin Laden than our invasion of Iraq did.

You know, I found it really amusing that the Republicans turned to Clint Eastwood at their recent convention in Tampa. While Clint has always been a tremendous actor and now a spectacular director, the fact is that the composed, cool and deadly upholder of justice he played in the Dirty Harry movies was just a role.

If you want to see a real-life Dirty Harry—the clear-headed enforcer who tracks down the bad guys and ensures they get what’s coming to them—you can find him most days at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

People know the difference between an act and the real thing. Our president, Barack Obama, may be many things, but he is clearly not weak. His results speak for themselves. You could even say he’s got more Clint Eastwood in him than Clint himself.

So, Governor Romney, you’ve got to ask yourself one question:

“Do I feel lucky?”

Well, do ya, punk?

Unconventional Success at Democratic Convention

I returned to Chicago yesterday from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. After 13 hours of uninterrupted sleep, a few observations:

1) The Democrats are finally starting to understand that politics, for most voters, comes from the gut, not from the head. The average voter is much less interested in policy statements than how a candidate or party makes him or her feel.

I was in the hall for two of the three nights, and everything seemed geared toward maximum emotional impact. Michelle Obama’s speech emphasized: I’m a mom, I’m a wife, we’re a normal family, we’re just like you. Most importantly, she sought connection with the overwhelming majority of the voting public along economic lines: without mentioning Mitt Romney’s name, Mrs. Obama adroitly noted that when Barack picked her up for a date, the door of his modest car was rusted through, something we surely will never hear from Ann Romney. And her line about how it’s not how much you earn, it’s what good you do hammered the point home.

When the Democrats brought in Gabrielle Giffords to recite the Pledge of Allegiance on Wednesday night, I nearly cried. I’m sure there were others who shot right past almost.

Everything was perfectly scripted to provoke emotional triggers, and I think it largely succeeded. No high-minded logical arguments, no mind-numbing 23-point plans. If anybody could boil down the key message and tone of the Democratic Convention this year, it was basically this: We’re much more like you than the Republicans are (therefore we care about more about you than they do), and we’re nicer. The red meat for the delegates (and there was plenty, particularly in the speech of former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland) was largely confined to time slots that weren’t widely televised.

And while President Obama’s speech was panned by many pundits (and by me) as providing nothing we hadn’t heard before, its purpose, I believe, has been largely misunderstood. The president wasn’t attempting to impress the people in the hall. He was attempting to restore the emotional connection he forged with the voters in 2008, most of whom haven’t really been paying much attention since. The people I talked to who were in the building unanimously agreed with me that the speech wasn’t Obama’s best and that it was all basically rehashed, old sound bytes. But the people I talked to who saw it on TV really liked it, and that’s what mattered, because they are the people the president needs to reconnect with and win over again. You don’t use a speech to 35 million people to preach to the converted. If the speech was old hat to me and the other people I talked to on the way out of Time Warner Cable Arena, it wasn’t necessarily so to the viewing audience at home.

2) The Democrats won the two-week convention period and did so handily. Polling in the wake of the Republican event in Tampa demonstrated very little of a bump for Romney; to the degree that he got one at all, he went from trailing 49-47 to tied 48-48. While the effects of the Democratic convention will need a few days to fully develop, coming out of the conventions ahead, as he will, is a win for Obama. Very few candidates who aren’t ahead after both conventions are over ultimately win the election. I’d have to do some research to say this for sure, but I think the last one was Harry Truman in 1948. And Mitt Romney is no Harry Truman.

I’ve been saying for weeks that if Romney didn’t come out of the conventions ahead, he would lose the election (barring some unforeseen catastrophe for Obama). I see nothing at this point that changes my analysis.

3) The Democrats will make bigger gains in the U.S. House than people expect. I was fortunate to attend a Democratic briefing on the upcoming House races. Of course, I immediately dismissed a lot of what they said as biased and overly optimistic, and naturally so: you don’t tell a group of potential donors, “Hey, there’s no way in hell we’re going to reclaim the House this year, so you can put your money away, boys and girls.” But they did offer some convincing polling and fundraising statistics that led me to conclude there is at least an outside possibility they could wrest the House from the Republicans. Personally, I still wouldn’t bet a lot of money on that happening (despite their rather optimistic claims), but there are some races that are polling more competitively than anyone expected at the start of the cycle.

I’m not going to say any more, because it was a closed briefing and I don’t want to say anything that could tip off the other side. But I will say that I came out of the room slightly more optimistic than when I entered. I think the battle for the U.S. House will be closer than expected and that the final spread will be in the single digits.