2012 Comes Early

2012 came early this year. With the collapse of the negotiations in the Not-So-Super Committee, the outline of the 2012 election is now set. The voter’s will focus on three, and possibly four, things next year. First, President Obama’s record. Second, the suitability of whomever ends up as the GOP nominee. Third, and most importantly, voters will face a choice about how to deal with the nation’s finances.

The President’s record is, I would argue, pretty good. He came into office at a time when the bottom had fallen out of the economy. The much-maligned stimulus, in addition to whatever economic benefits were derived from it, had a more important consequence: It let all economic actors from the markets on Wall Street to the mom-and-pop shop on Main Street know that the government was not going to stand by and let the economy tank. The psychological effect of that was enormous and prevented a meltdown, but it did not prevent anemia in the economy and no President gets credit for the trainwrecks he avoided. In addition, I think the President gets credit for passing universal health insurance, but his own party has been so unwilling to defend that law, it is unclear this achievement will be seen by the voters as an achievement. Winding down the wars, catching Osama bin Laden, the artful handling of Libya, all these help put to rest the idea that Democrats are weak on foreign policy and security issues, but those issues will not be at the center of the electoral debate next year.

The GOP candidates are, how to say this nicely, something less than impressive. Romney is an inveterate flip-flopper and one gets the suspicion that the thing he really, really cares about is getting the camera angle right. And, he has not even built a convincing narrative for most of his flip-flops. He has a story about how and why he changed his position on abortion, but subsequent to his “conversion” he passed a health care reform law that explicitly provides taxpayer-funded abortions and, by statute, gives Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts the right to appoint a member of the Massachusetts Health Advisory Board. Had that happened before his conversion, it would not be fair game. Coming after his conversion, it is more than a little strange. As for the others, Gingrich who is now leading in some polls has more baggage than a fully loaded 747. Perry still is sitting on campaign cash and is the midst of a big ad buy – we will see if that media buy brings his numbers back up – but his is a steep climb after so many self-inflicted wounds. Cain grows less serious by the day. There is always the chance that Bachmann or Santorum could surprise in Iowa: Look at how John Kerry’s late surge in Iowa catapulted him to the top of the Democratic field in 2004.

The lack of enthusiasm for either the President or the challengers will actually have one happy consequence: It will focus the campaign on the actual choice facing the country. Are we going to move towards fiscal sanity by starting with a more fair tax structure or are we going to begin by cutting government programs and entitlements? This is where the Not-So-Super Committee broke down. The Democrats said: How can you expect us to cut our treasured entitlement programs without matching increases in taxes on those who have benefited the most from economic trends over the past thirty years? Republicans said: How can you expect us to consent to raising taxes on anybody unless Washington first reins in its spending. Any eventual solution to the conundrum of the government’s finances, and the larger more philosophic issue of the role of government in the economy and society, will entail a mixture of tax increases and program cuts, to be sure. But, it matters how you start and it matters what you hold sacred. I suspect more Americans would side with the Democrats on this fundamental issue of raising taxes versus cutting entitlements. Certainly, there is much to be said for a dollar-for-dollar match, not the 80% budget cuts for every 20% of tax increases.

In the 1990s, I was speaking with a high-level official in the Clinton administration and I asked why they were not running on tax simplification and ending the rash of tax breaks for the well-placed and the well-connected. I have always thought that such a focus on that issue would restore some populist oompf to the Democratic economic policies. My friend said to me, “If voters go into the booth thinking of themselves as taxpayers, they vote Republican; If they go in thinking of themselves as workers, they vote Democratic.” I understand his point, but I have never understood why those who work for the President do not recognize his unique ability to change the political narrative. I imagine that if President Obama spent the next year pounding away on the theme – if you vote for them, they will cut your Medicare before they will raise taxes on the rich – he will change that narrative.

Of course, the reason the Not-So-Super Committee failed in its mission was because the voters sent two different messages in the past few elections. Democrats, and especially the President, can rightly say that they were not elected to cut Medicare. Republicans, who reclaimed the House in 2010, can rightly say that they were not sent to Washington to raise taxes. We can hope that next year, the voters will provide some clarity about their intentions, but that is itself unclear. What if the GOP holds on to the House and Obama holds onto the White House? Will anything change? Only if President Obama articulates a very clear and concise program, e.g., vote for me and I will reform the tax code so that the rich pay their fair share, I will protect Medicare and Social Security, and I will pass comprehensive immigration reform. Only if he runs, and wins, on three or at most four clear-cut issues can he claim a mandate.

In the course of a campaign, the President and his opponent will have to address many other issues. The president will need to defend his record. His opponent will need to flesh out his or her views on a range of side issues. But, if the President adopts a three-point, not a ten-point, not a twenty-five point, focus for what he wants to accomplish in a second term, he can turn a win into a mandate no matter how close the election is. Bush did it in 2000 and how could an election be closer than 5-4?

At the beginning, I noted that the failure of the Not-So-Super Committee provides us with the outline of the 2012 race and that it will have three or four parts. The fourth part is one the President needs to avoid. He cannot let this election be turned into a culture war fight. As the behind-the-scenes battle over the conscience exemption from the HHS mandates nears its conclusion, the President needs to decide if he wants to feed or starve the GOP-inspired narrative that Democrats are hostile to religion and religious values. If 2012 is a referendum on culture war issues, the President will lose. It is curious to me the number of Catholics on the left who normally have nary a kind word for the bishops, but they understand that this conscience exemption issue could end any hope of Democrats reaching out to moderate swing Catholics who will decide the election in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida.

The failure of the Not-So-Super Committee has exposed the ideological fault line that runs through our currently divided government. I think most people side with the Democrats on those core issues. But, if the Obama administration lets Republicans present themselves as the defenders of religion, and failing to expand the conscience exemption will do precisely that, they will have no one to blame but themselves when the GOP reclaims the White House.

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