During the dog days of last summers debt-ceiling negotiations, with Washington gridlocked and the presidents approval ratings slumping, a narrative coalesced among disappointed liberals. President Barack Obama was failing, they decided, because he was too moderate, too reasonable and too conciliatory. He didnt have the ideological confidence required to actually fight for liberalism, or the brazenness required to really tear the Republicans apart.
Apparently somebody at the White House bought into this narrative, because so far Obamas re-election campaign has delivered just about everything that liberal partisans were begging for a year ago.
Since the campaign kicked off, the presidents domestic policy rhetoric has become much more stridently left-wing than it was during the debt-ceiling debate.
Hes dropped all but a pro forma acknowledgment of the tough choices looming in our future, and doubled down on the comforting progressive fantasy that we can close the deficit and keep the existing safety net by soaking Americas millionaires and billionaires.
On hot-button cultural issues, meanwhile immigration and gay marriage, reproductive issues and religious liberty, even welfare reform hes moved away from Clintonian triangulation, offering a succession of explicit panders to Democratic voting blocs and interest groups instead.
To this bordering-on-McGovernite substance, hes added Richard Nixons style, with a pitch to swing voters that started out negative and has escalated to frank character assassination. In Obamas campaign ads, and in the rhetoric of his aides and allies, Mitt Romney isnt just wrong on specific policies or too right-wing in general. Hes part Scrooge, part Gordon Gekko; an un-American, Asia-loving outsourcer; a tax avoider and possibly a white-collar felon.
And at the moment, the presidents continued lead in swing-state polls provides modest but real evidence that his strategy is working. If the election were held today, Id bet gingerly on the president eking out the necessary 51 percent.
But Obamas current edge may have more to do with the Romney campaigns complacency than with the genius of his McGovern-meets-Nixon approach.
In Romneyland, it seems to be an article of faith that 2012 will be a pure up-or-down vote on the presidents performance, and that the most generic sort of Republican campaign hooray for free enterprise and low taxes, with the details To Be Determined Later is therefore the only kind of campaign they need to run.
But as The New Republics William Galston has pointed out, even a referendum election tends to involve a two-step process, in which voters first decide whether theyre willing to eject the incumbent, and then decide whether theyre willing to roll the dice with his opponent.
In this case, that roll of the dice involves handing the White House back to the Republican Party just four years after the Bush administration failed (and then some) to deliver on its promises. And by running a generic campaign in the aftermath of those failures, Romney isnt giving voters any reason to think that he wont just deliver the same disappointing results.
The Romney campaign is clearly afraid of talking too much about its candidates biography (all that money, all that Mormonism ) or offering anything save bullet points and platitudes on policy (because details can be used against you ). But a Republican candidate who wont define himself is a candidate whos easily defined as just another George W. Bush.
A Romney campaign that loosened up and actually took some chances, on the other hand, might find that the Obama White Houses slash-and-burn liberalism had opened up some unexpected opportunities.
Because Obama has moved left on fiscal and social issues, theres more space in the center assuming, that is, that Romney can get over his fear of offending his own partys interest groups.
Because Obama has gone so negative, theres room to accentuate the positive, and run as the candidate of (right-of-center) hope and change.
Or he can keep doing what hes been doing, in which case he stands a very good chance of losing oh-so-narrowly, and joining Thomas Dewey in the ranks of Republican presidential nominees who mistakenly believed that they could win the White House by default.