The thought occurred to me today that Mitt Romney is reminding me an awful lot of Meg Whitman, 2010′s megabuck Republican candidate for Governor of California.
The parallels are there: both candidates came from business backgrounds and had astonishing personal wealth. Both boasted continuously about how their business experience would make them job-creating geniuses if they were elected, though Whitman’s tenure running eBay gave her better credibility to make this argument than Romney’s atop job-shredding Bain Capital. Both ran against Democrats that were viewed in a lukewarm fashion at best by the electorate–Jerry Brown’s favorability was underwater for most of the campaign, lest we forget. Whitman had an enormous amount of money to spend to defeat Jerry Brown, and wound up dropping over $100 million of her own cash to do so.
But she lost by a huge margin. This might be expected considering that California is more Democratic than the country, but the state doesn’t seem to have much of a problem electing Republican Governors that tend to be more moderate. In fact, there have only been three Democratic Governors since WWII in this state, and one of those got recalled. This race, in any event, was close most of way. But Whitman, who saw her campaign slide away for employing an illegal immigrant, was already dropping in the polls well before that story broke. The Times sums up the reasons for this:
Ms. Whitman has spent much of the campaign explaining why she had rarely voted before entering politics. Her record at eBay, including layoffs under her watch, has been the subject of scrutiny. And she has been assailed by independent fact-checkers for running what were described as misleading or false advertisements attacking Mr. Brown by portraying him as a big spender when he served as governor of California in the 1970s.
Sounding familiar? Romney has had a different issue with voting that probably won’t matter in November, but the rest of this echoes Romney completely. Romney even has a comparable story of employing an illegal immigrant to Whitman’s. And Whitman’s other major problem in the campaign? Failed flip-flops:
After assuming a relatively tough line on illegal immigration in the primary — though explicitly avoiding the tough anti-illegal immigrant law passed in Arizona — she moved, the moment the general election began, to appeal to Latino voters with an extensive and expensive Spanish-language campaign that extended from television airwaves to bus stops to billboards that read, “Más Trabajos,” or more jobs.
She flip-flopped a few times on cap-and-trade too, for what it’s worth. Not a great idea to be ambiguous on environmental policy in this state is all I’m saying. But that’s another story. The point is that taking a hard line on immigration, as Whitman and Romney have done in their primaries, is essentially a killer if you want to get any Hispanic support as a Republican. It doesn’t matter if you soften it later, Hispanics at this point are suspicious of Republicans over this and other issues and Democrats will absolutely trot it out endlessly and hammer it home with no end. Republicans have a very thin margin of error to trod with these voters, and both Whitman and (likely) Romney have already crossed it. Obama will probably get over 70% of the Hispanic vote, I’m predicting.
Whitman’s campaign, ultimately, failed to connect for many reasons. But the overall gestalt pointed to one reason: the people didn’t connect with someone who just luxuriated in wealth, felt entitled to get a position because of her wealth and status, and couldn’t relate to normal folk. As Ruben Navarette Jr. put it at the time:
So then why did Whitman lose? For one thing, she never connected with voters and that hurt her when the Brown campaign started pushing the message that she was this rich empress who lived in a bubble and couldn’t relate to average Californians. [...]
There are plenty of differences between the two cases, but I think there are enough similarities between Romney and Whitman to make it an interesting question, and possibly some hope for Democrats in November. It’s amazing how these two politicians seem to have almost identical backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses (though in fairness, Romney did actually win an election once). Personally, I long for the days when rich people thought politics was a dirty profession.
Interesting analysis from Noam Scheiber on Obama’s sorta-populist moment:
But there’s still another explanation, which has to do with racial stereotypes and double-standards. Simply put, a little-known African-American politician who dabbles in edgy populism risks alienating certain white voters, who will view his populism through the lens of race. However the candidate actually intends it, these voters will treat his rhetoric as evidence that he plans to take from white people and give to black people, and, needless to say, they’ll be nudged along in this assumption by the right-wing media. (Fox et al was pretty good at fanning these fears even when Obama’s rhetoric was about as far from populist as you can get).
Three years into his term, by contrast, most Americans have a fairly detailed portrait of the president. He’s no longer a black man they don’t know, but a person they have a relatively intimate relationship with, at least as public figures go. Many, if not most, probably don’t even think of the president in racial terms anymore.
Which is to say, Obama may have finally embraced populism because he finally can embrace populism, whereas it simply wasn’t politically possible before.
I think this is certainly a possibility, but…it’s not the simplest one, which is that the Democratic Party has a deep disdain for populism. To know why that is, I like to think about what would happen if the Democrats fully embraced an authentically populist approach as a party. This is impossible to predict, but I think the following four things would happen in short order:
- Democrats would quickly increase their share of the fabled white, working-class vote by a decent margin.
- Democrats would probably lose some percentage of the totebagger, Charlie Rose-viewer vote off the bat, though probably less on net.
- The political establishment (and its political wing, the Blue Dog caucus) would go absolutely apeshit, attacking Democrats as reverting to the far-left McGovern days and such. Joe Lieberman would have a field day.
- Corporate donations would fizzle, putting the party at (more of) a disadvantage when it comes to financing electioneering activities. And it’s hard to see how they make it up.
Now, I’m not necessarily certain that it’s not worth taking the plunge. In fact, post-Citizens United, I think it’s really the only choice. There’s a theory of politics (Jamie Court is pretty eloquent explaining it) which basically states that the forces of reaction and propping up the status quo are always going to be better-funded than the ones arguing for progress, so instead of playing that game, you play a different one–use anger to mobilize people for change, to basically detonate existing points of pressure and then get out of the way. And this theory has a lot going for it: it’s essentially the dynamic that gets corporations to create safer products and designs a lot of the time, driving progress in that sphere. What’s more, it would effectively force Democrats to rely much more on strengthening unions to compete, which was really where I think the Democrats went wrong in the first place, in paying them lip service to get big corporate money.
But it’s unsurprising that a simple observer and activist would say, “Let’s do it!” while the people responsible for making the party a success do not. And it occurs to me that the Democrats can’t afford to become a populist-reformist party that only occasionally holds power for short periods of time to enact rapid bursts of change, when one considers the shambles that the would-be Republican Party of governance is in right now. There is, I think, little question that populism is a vastly more effective approach for Democrats operating outside of the Coasts. The establishment favored Blue Dog-ish Iraq Veteran Paul Hackett over liberal-populist Sherrod Brown for the Ohio Senate nomination in 2006, and Brown won a surprisingly wide victory that I strongly doubt Hackett would have enjoyed. Democrats strongly stood by doomed Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010 when polls showed that the populist alternative trailed by far less. Admittely, Lincoln was in incumbent, but there was no need to spend a single penny in favor of an unpopular, damaged incumbent who was obviously going to lose by Santorum margins in November. None of this is particularly new, and I’ve written about it before, but it still stands. It is my opinion that the Blue Dogs represent mostly the worst aspects of our establishment consensus–deficit peacockery, military hawkishness, wishy-washiness on social issues–but the reason they have stuck around is because the establishment provides them with enormous cover. The Democratic Party has come to rely on this dynamic. But it’s not a very strong foundation for a reformist party, in my opinion.
TPM shares this bit from the GOP debate:
This is another aspect of what I was talking about earlier. Pawlenty simply isn’t a top-tier candidate, and his performance here does indeed show substantial weakness, as Josh Marshall says. This sort of question is one of the oldest in the book, asking if you stand by your campaign’s attacks–it’s literally a gotcha question–and Pawlenty seems to lack the awareness of what’s going on, trying to stay on message. But this sort of format requires some level of flexibility with dissemination of talking points. Pawlenty has none. It looks as though he’s afraid to hit Romney when he’s in the room. My earlier posts on Pawlenty not really building up buzz within or without his state was not entirely about the size of his state so much as the political skills he honed there. During Hillary Clinton’s tenure in the Senate, a lot of New Yorkers liked the work she did in office and found her political skills compelling. She was highly regarded as a result. Not too many people were arguing that Pawlenty was such a smooth and natural politician when he was running Minnesota and it comes out very obviously here.
Obama has long followed a strategy of letting other people fight pitched battles for a while and then parachuting in toward the end to act as peacemaker. And there’s a case to be made for that sometimes. He did it with healthcare because Bill Clinton tried it the other way in 1993 and got his hide nailed to the wall, and in the end Obama’s strategy worked. Would a more active intervention have worked better? Maybe, but there was a pretty good case to be made for doing it the way he did. But over the past year this trait has become almost pathological. Maybe the power of the bully pulpit is overrated, but Obama seems unwilling to even try to move public opinion or take a leadership role in his own caucus. At this point, I really have no idea what he thinks of taxes, the deficit, Medicare cuts, or much of anything else on the domestic agenda. I guess he’s figuring that if his political opponents insist on digging themselves into a hole, he might as well stand back and let them. But if he keeps this up much longer, there’s going to be nothing left of his presidency except “Well, I guess he’s better than the wingnuts from the other party.” That may win him reelection, but it won’t do much more.There’s something to this–passion begets passion, and Obama has been showing precious little of it these days, though I still wouldn’t underestimate Obama’s strengths as a campaigner. Anyway, this isn’t about how Obama doesn’t fight battles he’s not absolutely certain he can win. I expect that from a politician. It does seem, to me anyway, as though the administration does seem to lack a certain activist tone and energy. I loathe comparing a sitting Democratic president to Franklin Roosevelt because that’s like comparing a basketball player to Michael Jordan–comparing anyone to the best ever is just going to make the guy being compared look bad. It’s just a loaded comparison. But surely it’s okay to say that a basketball player doesn’t have the drive, the motivation, or the passion of Michael Jordan. Those are things players should try to emulate! Not everyone is as gifted as Jordan was, but trying as hard as Jordan did sure should be possible. And surely it’s okay to note that Franklin Roosevelt–even when faced with more conservative congresses that made sledding difficult–never stopped pushing for more programs, more help for people, and putting more power in the hands of the voters. Even when he lost (which did happen), even when he did something regrettable, he never lost that drive. He always kept pushing. And that I do prefer. What’s become clear to me is that Obama is no pusher. He let Max Baucus have whatever time he wanted to try to convince people who didn’t want to vote for health care reform. When the votes looked close, he tried to woo Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins instead of heading over to Maine for some tough, bracing speeches on health care. After pushing the stimulus, there wasn’t a constant drumbeat of new initiatives and speeches on the economy–focus shifted onto other issues, and it was obvious that the Administration was basically just waiting for their policies to work and for things to turn around. In other words, they surrendered the initiative and gave Republican critics an opening. Note that all this isn’t necessarily the same thing as letting one’s self get pushed around–he never abandoned health care, after all, when he was pushed to by Republicans and even some Democrats post Scott Brown–but since the midterm election it’s gotten even worse. It really seems as though Obama has no desire to play the partisan warrior that he has no choice to be now against John Boehner, and I wonder if the Libya operation became more attractive to an Obama frustrated with domestic politics than it would have been to, say, Obama circa June 2009. Wouldn’t be the first time (or the four hundredth time, even) that we heard that story. Obama doesn’t seem to want to play the role progressive activists want him to play–we’ve known that for a while–but the thing is that there really isn’t a choice right now. The Republicans are pushing everything they can before the public wises up and tosses their asses out of power. They certainly won’t be completely successful (as I said before, the last thing Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe want next year is to run on ending Medicare and slashing Medicaid), but let’s not forget that they can inflict a lot of damage in the process. There’s just no need right now for an aloof executive frustrated by not being able to play the bipartisan conciliator. One of the signs of a strong leader is to adapt to changing circumstances and to become what the public needs as the needs change. I think it’s time for that to happen, and it’s time to start pushing.
Sully points out a highlight among desolation:
[Alaska write-in Senate candidate Lisa] Murkowski has a comfortable lead. She will become only the second write-in Senate victor in history. So in her own backyard, Palin’s hand-picked and heartily endorsed candidate fell to a write-in Republican and barely eked out a lead over the Democrat. Alaska has begun to move on from the Palin era. Which means the fear may subside a little, and more will feel able to talk.
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