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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Obama’s ‘Glass Jaw’

Ross Douthat writes in the New York Times (10.10.12) that the problem with Obama’s performance at the debate was not his image, lack of repartees, or theatrical stage presence, but the failure of his vision.  Obama is neither here nor there, says Douthat, and his inability to articulate a clear and coherent policy is because there is a significant “divide between the enlightened do-goodism of the party’s upper-middle-class supporters and the economic interests of its remaining blue-collar constituents.”

In other words Obama has not been liberal enough for the ‘progressive’ wing of the party and not outspoken enough in support of gay rights, women’s rights, affirmative action, and the redistribution of wealth.  Nor has he been moderate enough to appeal to the middle class which simply wants jobs, the protection that federal entitlements can afford, and some relief from the demands of banks, the IRS, and the marketplace.

The Republicans do not have this problem, for their ‘one size fits all’ philosophy makes it possible to easily stay on message, hammer home points that will be scored with all their constituencies – conservative Southerners who once voted Democratic but who have for some time felt dispossessed and left by the roadside; Reagan Democrats in the urban north who abandoned labor unionism for a muscular patriotism and a belief in small government; old-time Republicans who long for fiscal responsibility; and normal ‘folks’ who want only a preservation of or return to family and religious values. 

Obama’s problem is that he has only one solid block of voters – blacks – and even they are somewhat divided because of his overly liberal agenda on gay rights.  The Democrats are far from the one-size strategy and are suffering from it.

Even his successes can never satisfy all his varied constituencies.  For liberals, his Affordable Health Care Act did not go far enough.  He sold out to big pharma and private insurance companies and never really made the Teddy Kennedy-like absolute commitment to protecting all Americans from the ravages and consequences of serious disease.  For conservative Democrats the huge costs of the program in an era of staggering debts and deficits were worrying.  Why do this now, they asked.  The intellectual middle understood quite well that a balanced federal-private insurance program would help business become cost competitive with European countries and their universal health care.  Al Gore understood this years ago and had the perfect solution.  A national health care system was not at all socialistic. On the contrary, it was pure capitalistic, designed to support private enterprise; and yes, by the way, help the average American.

Who can really repeat with confidence Obama’s immigration policy?  Is he for open borders, or for keeping illegals out?  Is he for serious penalties for employers who hire illegals, or is he for shifting the burden to fences and Border Patrol Agents?  Does he believe in the free movement of labor and capital across borders in the spirit of Free Trade or not? Well, it depends, says Obama.

Romney, on the other hand, has no such problem.  Keep the buggers out, is the rallying cry; and what could be more simple than that?

The greatest distinction between Democrats and Republicans over the decades has been over the issue of distribution of wealth.  Democrats have favored engineering a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor; while Republicans have favored a market-based equalization – i.e. wealth begets wealth which begets jobs which result in greater wealth for all.

But Obama waffles on this issue.  He cannot criticize Wall Street too much because he understands the critical role investment bankers play in lubricating the economy with credit and because these bankers contribute to his coffers.  He cannot, therefore, side with the liberal wing of his party which wants draconian measures to control the predatory tendencies of Wall Street; nor side with the more conservative, old money, and even moderate factions which like the fact that their stock portfolios increase in value thanks to Bain Capital.

Again, the Republicans have the edge because of the clarity and universality of their vision.  Wealth is not bad, they say.  It is good, and in so saying not only appeal to most Americans who have bought into the American Dream, but to Protestant conservatives who reflect the beliefs of their Puritan ancestors – wealth is a sign of being chosen by God.  Maybe not all of you are wealthy, say the Republicans, but you could be if only the fetters of regulation and the ominous shadow of Big Government were removed. 

This lack of a plausible vision, more than his stutters and missed opportunities, is what doomed the President in last week’s debate. His responses to Romney were strikingly backward-looking — alternating between “we’re already doing that” and “we tried that under Republicans, and it didn’t work,” and rarely pivoting effectively to “here’s what we should do next.”

The Republicans have clearly understood the principal tenet of advertising – the Unique Selling Proposition.  They are selling a nicely-packaged product with attractive advertising.  Romney and his crew are not anywhere near as brilliant as the Reagan team who created the ‘It’s Morning in America Again” – the idea that only with a positive attitude, a renewal of American can-do spirit, an embrace of American exceptionalism, and a rejection of defeatism, the United States can be great again.  But however lacking he may be in creating that crystalline vision of Reagan, Romney still has that unified theme that has helped Republicans for decades – patriotism, enterprise, small government, individual liberty, and faith in God will set this country straight.

Douthat is right.  The debate debacle was more about the inarticulate nature of Obama’s vision than it was about his Obama’s theatrical lapses on stage.

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