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A battle, not a rout

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Michael Gerson
March 6, 2012
— It is the temptation of the columnist to universalize the moment—to present transient trends as exceptional, predictive and permanent. A direction is presented as a destiny. A snapshot is expanded into an epic. But history—driven by decisive contingencies—pays little mind.

Eight months ago, President Obama was losing the debt debate with congressional Republicans. His approval rating was approaching an all-time low, with support collapsing among independents and fading among Democrats.


“I think it would be a good idea,” said independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, “if President Obama faced some primary opposition.”


That seems a different political world from our own. But the presidential election is eight months from now.


Republicans currently have their troubles. The primary process has not been kind to its likely winner. Mitt Romney has been battered by a series of opponents—really by the series of millionaire Republican PAC donors who splurged on negative ads against him. Romney himself has sometimes sounded like a millionaire Republican businessman—not a stretch for him—with a luxury car buyer’s interest in Detroit and a team owner’s interest in NASCAR. The nomination contest has driven up Romney’s negatives while revealing limitations in appealing across class lines.


Romney’s manner isn’t the whole problem. His opposition to the auto bailout—whatever the economic policy explanation—has added to blue-collar suspicions. His use of immigration as a wedge issue against Rick Perry and other Republicans has complicated his general-election appeal to Hispanics.


But Romney has been fortunate in the weakness of his opponents. If he eventually secures the nomination, his luck may hold.


In the general election, Romney would not be facing Bill Clinton. Obama has difficulties of his own in the human touch and blue-collar appeal departments. His massive alienation of the white working class was the story of the 2010 election (Republicans won this group by a 30-point margin). Obama’s signature presidential achievements—Obamacare and the stimulus—are too unpopular to mention in mixed ideological company. He presides over an economic recovery that is historically weak.


Many in the media still maintain an image of Obama from 2008. But this is like the impression left on the retina after a bright light has faded. Obama is eloquent—but he seldom is eloquent. He is unifying—though he is among the most polarizing presidents of modern history. He is the fixer of Washington—who has helped make Washington more broken than ever. He is post-partisan—when not channeling Huey Long in a bad mood (see his recent UAW speech).

Both Romney and Obama have serious flaws. Both are also serious, qualified candidates—perfectly capable of gaining 270 electoral votes. They will appeal to an electorate in which both Republicans and Democrats can assume about 46 percent of the vote while fighting over the remaining 8 percent. It is possible this swing vote, near the end, will decisively break one way or the other. But there is currently no way of knowing what factors—a memorable debate, a conflict with Iran, $6-per-gallon gasoline—might swing that momentum.


We do know a few things. Obama won in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote during a perfect Democratic storm—an inspiring, blank-slate candidate against a relatively weak Republican opponent, in a discontented, war-weary nation. Conditions for Obama in 2012 are likely to be less favorable.


As I count it, Obama’s current Gallup job approval is 45 percent or less in 12 battleground states—Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. These are the political conditions at the worst moments of intra-Republican bloodletting. If this is the bottom of GOP political fortunes, it is not very low.


The strategy of a Republican presidential candidate is straightforward. While keeping the states carried by the GOP in 2008, he must win back Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina—none a particularly heavy lift. He must take Ohio and Florida. Then he needs only to win one more state.


None of this is impossible—at least for a GOP candidate not named Santorum or Gingrich. Against Obama, Romney would need to bring his A game, having consistently played a few letters below it. He would need to craft a message of economic growth and social mobility that inspires beyond the grounds of the country club.


But confident predictions of Romney’s defeat are not only premature. They are seriously frivolous.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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