Image and reality in Election 2012

Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, considers what's at stake in the presidential election--and what "choice" is really being offered to voters.

Image and reality in Election 2012

NO INCUMBENT president since the Second World War has been re-elected with the unemployment rate at the level it's likely to still be on Election Day. Median income for the majority of Americans has dropped in every year of Barack Obama's term so far.

Add in the demoralization of Democratic voters disappointed that Obama hasn't met the high expectations for his presidency and an energized Republican base, fired by hatred for the first Black president, and Election 2012 seemed like it was the Republicans' to lose.

But as of right now, it looks like the GOP will do exactly that--lose.

Opinion polls in September showed Obama opening up a solid lead over Mitt Romney, both nationally and in crucial "swing states" like Ohio and Florida that will determine who wins in the undemocratic Electoral College. Contrary to the speculation as the campaign got underway, Democrats stand a decent chance of keeping their majority in the U.S. Senate, and a few optimists are even predicting the Republicans will lose control of the House.

It's still too soon to call the election for Obama and the Democrats. Pro-Republican Super PACs are set to release a torrent of money to promote Romney. The European economic crisis could erupt again, sending the U.S. economy and Obama's fortunes into a tailspin. Some crisis around the globe could throw the White House on the defensive.

But the big question with just over a month to go before Election Day is why the campaign is going against Romney and the Republicans.

A number of conservative pundits and politicians have been carping about the Romney campaign's ineptitude--and on the level of Washington insider politics, they have a point. Last month's Republican convention produced more fodder for late-night comedians than votes for Romney. The bizarre spectacle of an addled Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair became the story of the convention, not anything the presidential candidate said or did.

But this was typical for a convention and campaign that couldn't seem to decide whether to attack Obama as a foreign-born socialist job killer or appeal to people whose hopes for the Obama presidency were dashed.

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THAT VACILLATION leads us to the more general reasons for the Democrats' surge and the Republicans' floundering.

The GOP apparently convinced itself it could rerun the 2010 congressional campaign, when Tea Party-backed Republicans swept into office, from the state houses to Congress. But the demographics of the electorate that usually turns out in midterm elections are different from presidential years.

In 2010, the narrower midterm electorate--whiter, wealthier, older and more conservative than the population as a whole--played to the Republicans' advantage. This year, the conservative freak show that played out in the Republican primaries and that continues to dominate in the Romney campaign is alienating the larger and broader electorate of a presidential election.

In that sense, the problem isn't Romney as an individual candidate, but the party he represents. As the liberal commentator Michael Tomasky, writing in the Daily Beast, put it:

[Romney's decline is] happening because of a party and movement that are out of control and out of touch. There is not a prominent Republican in the country who could be doing any better, with the possible lone exception of Jeb Bush, but it's probably too early yet for another Bush. Face it, Republicans: [Romney] was and is your best candidate, and he's tanking now more because of you than because of him.

On the Democratic side, Obama's challenge was to turn the election into a "choice" rather than a "referendum."

Like George W. Bush, who ran for re-election in 2004 in the shadow of an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, Obama is running when millions of people are still feeling the devastation of the 2008 economic meltdown. If Obama faced an "up or down" vote on the status quo, he would most likely lose.

Thus, the aim of the Democratic campaign has been to turn the focus away from Obama's record in office and toward Mitt Romney and the Republicans' right-wing policies.

A year ago, after the Occupy movement erupted and thrust the issues of income inequality and political power into the public discussion, Obama recast himself as a "warrior for the middle class." The closer the election gets, the more Obama and the Democrats are amping up the populist rhetoric.

Of course, you could ask why the Democrats are so interested in raising taxes on the rich and passing a jobs program now--as opposed to when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress in 2009 and 2010. But the populist rhetoric seems to be working.

George Bush won re-election in 2004 by convincing just enough voters that his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, was a "flip-flopper" who couldn't be trusted to keep the U.S. "safe" from terrorism. In 2012, Obama's goal is to convince wavering voters that Romney's top priority is redistributing wealth upward to the super-rich.

Romney made Obama's task easier. At a time when the majority of Americans believe the political and economic game is rigged to favor the "1 percent," the Republicans couldn't have nominated a candidate more symbolic of the 1 percent than Romney. The release of videotape of Romney's performance at a fundraiser at a billionaire's mansion only reinforced his image as part of an arrogant and ruthless elite.

Romney helped Obama in another way--his selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate cemented the election as a "choice." The hard-right ideologue Ryan may excite conservatives, but to anyone who had ever heard of him before, he is known as the author of the Republicans' budget plan that would turn Medicare into a voucher program, slash Medicaid and privatize Social Security. And now, just about everyone knows that Romney/Ryan stands for blowing up what's left of the social safety net.

So Obama is running not only as the "fighter for the middle class," but as the defender of Medicare and Social Security, the two most popular government programs. When attendees at the national American Association of Retired Persons convention booed Ryan's appearance, Republicans had to be worried. They had counted on winning a majority of the senior vote by attacking Obama for cutting more than $700 billion in future spending for Medicare--while hiding the fact that they planned to do the same thing.

Romney and Ryan gambled that popular dissatisfaction with Obama would be enough to put them in a position to carry out the Republicans' long-term fantasy of tearing up the New Deal. At this point, that looks to be a bad wager.

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BUT THE irony in all this is that while Obama skewers Romney and Ryan for planning to cut Medicare and Social Security, he and his administration have been searching for ways to do exactly that.

Journalist Ryan Lizza's recent report in the New Yorker detailed how Obama's main plans for a second term revolve around completing the "grand bargain" outlined by the deficit reduction commission, chaired by Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, that Obama appointed in 2010.

Though its members, including Paul Ryan, failed to meet the criteria needed to have them voted on by Congress, the commission's recommendations are seen as a blueprint for the austerity drive in the years to come. Under the commission's plan, the U.S. government deficit would be reduced by $4 trillion over the next decade, with about three-quarters of the "savings" coming from restructuring--translation: slashing--Medicare and Social Security.

So the "grand bargain" amounts to this: In exchange for getting the wealthy to pay a little more in taxes, Obama would deliver cuts in major government entitlement programs that the Republicans have been dreaming of for years.

Thus, while Obama re-election campaign has been run skillfully and effectively, it is, at heart, deeply cynical.

After thoroughly disappointing their base when they held all the keys in Washington, the Democrats have thrown a few bones to liberals as the campaign got going. The Democratic Party platform now endorses marriage equality, and the Obama administration has allowed undocumented youth to apply for restricted and temporary legal status.

Against a party that caters to the Christian Right and whose candidate calls for "self-deportation" of the undocumented, these gestures will certainly make the Democrats look more appealing. But if Obama and the Democrats didn't act more substantively on these same issues when they had the power to do so a few years ago, why should anyone believe they will make good on their election-year promises this time?

And the most cynical maneuver of all comes in the debate around "entitlement reform." If Obama beats Romney, it will be in a large part due to his defense of Medicare and Social Security against the Republicans' plans to slash and burn both. Yet Obama is more committed than ever to achieving trillions of dollars in cuts.

That should be a reminder to everyone that the backdrop to this election remains the bipartisan commitment to austerity--and that the "lesser evil" is still an evil.