Mitt Romney, beware the ghost of John Kerry

President George W. Bush eked out a victory over John Kerry in 2004 despite long odds against it. CHARLES DHARAPAK / Associated Press
President George W. Bush eked out a victory over John Kerry in 2004 despite long odds against it. CHARLES DHARAPAK / Associated Press
Posted: July 23, 2012

The president is a polarizing figure whose reelection is imperiled by his handling of the nation's No. 1 issue. However, he's blessed with an opponent who is easy to attack — a rich Massachusetts patrician with seemingly flexible convictions and a personality that impedes any visceral connection with voters.

But enough about George W. Bush and John Kerry.

You see where I'm going with this. The 2012 contest has taken on the broad contours of 2004, when Bush eked out a narrow win by framing the race not as a referendum on his stewardship of the war in Iraq, but as a choice between the devil people knew and the devil they didn't.

Bush succeeded — ultimately, by a margin of about 118,000 votes in Ohio in the wee hours of the Wednesday morning after the election — by painting Kerry, early and often, as a flip-flopping, out-of-touch elitist. He went after Kerry's supposed strength, his tenure in Vietnam, and reframed it as a weakness. He defined Kerry because Kerry was too slow to defend himself.

The Obama strategists should be sending royalties to Karl Rove, because they're clearly working his playbook. They don't want this race to be a referendum on President Obama's stewardship of the economy; they can ill afford that, given the numbers. They want it to be a choice between two candidates, and they want to frame that choice to their advantage.

Which is why they've been in overdrive lately, seeking to paint Romney as a flip-flopping, out-of-touch elitist. They're going after his supposed strength, his tenure in the private sector, and spinning it as a weakness. They want to define Romney in the harshest terms — and it may work, because, like Kerry, Romney has been lead-footed on defense.

No two elections are identical, of course. And I don't mean to imply that it's a foregone conclusion Obama will replicate Bush's squeaker in November. But for now, the parallels are almost eerie. Indeed, as former Bush speechwriter Troy Senik smartly warned in January, the similarities between Romney and Kerry "are ominous for Republicans who think that the abject failure of the Obama administration makes retaking the White House a fait accompli."

Romney won the GOP nomination for the same reasons Kerry got the Democratic nod eight years ago. Though he didn't excite the party base — his record as Massachusetts governor was too moderate, just as the Democratic base viewed Kerry's Senate record as too moderate — Romney was, like Kerry, deemed the most "electable" candidate. And both guys were confident that their biographies would be prime assets.

Kerry never imagined the Republicans could assail his war-hero record and make him appear to be just another stereotypical Democratic antiwar wimp. When he was readying his bid in 2002, I asked him whether he was prepared for the inevitable GOP attacks. I still have my notes from that conversation, and he replied: "I'm not concerned about it." And when the attacks came, in the summer of '04, he was so unconcerned he dithered for weeks before responding. By then, it was too late: The poll numbers were moving Bush's way.

The same dynamic may be happening with Romney. For weeks, the Obama campaign has been hammering at his supposed strength — his economic prowess as a longtime businessman — and crafted a counter-narrative that paints him as a rapacious vulture capitalist who shipped jobs abroad, hides his tax returns, and secretes his wealth offshore. Obama's aim is obvious: To thwart his opponent's economic message, he has to discredit the messenger.

And for weeks, Romney has been slow to respond. Polls in swing states show that the relentless Obama attack ads are beginning to move voters. Romney supporters are complaining about their candidate, much the way Democrats complained about Kerry eight summers ago. Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg spoke for many the other day when he wrote, "What bothers me — both on the tax-return issue and the Bain/outsourcing issues — is that he's been running for president for years and yet he seems unprepared to deal with these attacks."

How could Romney fail to anticipate that he would be seriously attacked in this fashion? He even had a foretaste during the GOP primaries, when Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry assailed him on Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he ran. Clearly, the Obama campaign was readying more of the same with a much bigger megaphone. Perhaps the best explanation is that rich people (especially those who have spent as little as four years in elective office) can be a tad insular and tone-deaf.

It's like what happened in the summer of '04, when, in the midst of the Republicans' efforts to portray Kerry as a rich elitist, he decided to go windsurfing. By then, Kerry had also been successfully labeled a flip-flopper, especially based on his earlier assertion — relentlessly marketed by the GOP — that he had voted for Iraq war funding before he had voted against it. Kerry was trying to explain a fine point of parliamentary procedure, but he chose his words poorly. Nor was he a particularly deft communicator on the campaign trail — another trait Romney shares.

The war-funding remark helped fuel the perception that Kerry had no core, which is precisely what the Obama campaign is saying about Romney, making fulsome use of his past support for health-care reform with an individual insurance requirement. It's all part of the broader effort to tear Romney down before the autumn sprint.

Bush made it work, topping Kerry by the narrowest margin of any incumbent since 1916. Obama might pull it off as well, aided by another important Bush '04 factor: an assiduous, under-the-radar ground game aimed at maximizing turnout of his base.

But there is one caveat (sorry, Democrats): The economy might be a bigger drag on Obama than Iraq was on Bush. The war was fought far away by volunteers; the economy is right here in everybody's kitchen.

So Obama will try to win ugly, just as Bush did. Goodbye to the thematics of hope and change. Alas, 2008 now seems a lot farther away than 2004.

Dick Polman can be reached at dickpolman7@gmail.com and found on Twitter at @dickpolman1.

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