Cue up Seinfeld on your VCR, connect your dial-up modem, and put your Coolio CDs on your stereo, because it’s starting to look a lot like 1996 out there on the campaign trail.
As better economic news rolls out, Mitt Romney’s biggest issue — that Barack Obama tanked the economy — becomes less and less viable. And it’s likely that his fallback will be what he went with in his talk to CPAC today: that Obama doesn’t share the “values” of normal Americans. At its core, it’s the same message that Republicans have used in presidential campaigns for a generation: The Democratic nominee can’t be trusted, and is not really a loyal American. Michael Dukakis in 1988? Against the Pledge of Allegiance. Bill Clinton in 1992? Went to Moscow under mysterious circumstances. John Kerry? Rejected his medals, which he didn’t deserve in the first place.
The problem with that strategy, however effective it may be against a first-time candidate, is that it’s extremely unlikely to resonate against a sitting president. As Bob Dole found to his regret in 1996.
Dole ran on the full variety of Clinton “scandals”, most of which came down to the idea that a draft-dodging philanderer just didn’t belong in the White House. It didn’t work, and it won’t work againt Obama, either. It will be impossible to convince people that Obama is some strange alien presence after he’s been in the White House for four years. It just won’t wash.
Look at Romney’s CPAC speech. Almost all of it was generalities about “values” and “first principles” (which he mostly didn’t bother to define or explain). Almost none of it was issue-based. And there was little in the way of a likely general election platform. Bashing gay marriage? Not a winner any more. The Ryan plan cutting entitlements? I don’t think so. Granted, Romney was speaking to conservatives and not to a general election audience, but I can’t think of a single Romney proposal so far tha was crafted for a larger audience.
If the economy falters again, none of this will matter; Romney will talk about nothing but jobs. And if the economy really booms, then nothing Romney can say will help him anyway. If, however, the economy is just solid enough that it isn’t self-evident to most swing voters that Obama must be replaced, then Romney is headed for trouble. Simply saying that the economy is horrible and that a businessman is needed won’t do. Going the Bob Dole route and claiming Obama doesn’t believe in America will likely work as well for him as for Dole.
As long as Joe Biden doesn’t start making Macarena jokes.