Mitt Romney vs. Barack Obama is not exactly Jefferson-Adams or Lincoln-Douglas. No Harry Truman or Bill Clinton here, let alone FDR or Reagan. Indeed, it’s arguable that neither party is fielding its strongest candidate. Hillary Clinton would run far better than Obama. True, her secretaryship of state may not remotely qualify as Kissingerian or Achesonian, but she’s not Obama. She carries none of his economic baggage. She’s unsullied by the last three and a half years.
Similarly, the Republican bench had several candidates stronger than Romney, but they chose not to run. Indeed, one measure of the weakness of the two finalists is this: The more each disappears from view, the better he fares. Obama prospered when he was below radar during the Republican primaries. Now that they’re over and he’s back out front, his fortunes have receded.
He is constantly on the campaign trail. His frantic fundraising — 160 events to date — alternates with swing-state rallies where the long-gone charisma of 2008 has been replaced by systematic special-interest pandering, from cut-rate loans for indentured students to free contraceptives for women (the denial of which constitutes a “war” on same).
Then came the rush of bad news: terrible May unemployment numbers, a crushing Democratic defeat in Wisconsin, and that curious revolt of the surrogates, as Bill Clinton, Deval Patrick and Cory Booker — all dispatched to promote Obama — ended up contradicting, undermining or deploring Obama’s anti-business attacks on Romney.
Obama’s instinctive response? Get back out on the air. Call an impromptu Friday news conference. And proceed to commit the gaffe of the year: “The private sector is doing fine.”
This didn’t just expose Obama to precisely the out-of-touchness charge he is trying to hang on Romney. It betrayed his core political philosophy. Obama was trying to attribute high unemployment to a paucity of government workers and to suggest that the solution was to pad the public rolls. In doing so, though, he fatally undid his many previous protestations of being a fiscally prudent government cutter.
He thus positioned himself as, once again, the big-government liberal of 2009, convinced that what the ailing economy needs is yet another bout of government expansion. A serious political misstep, considering the fate of the last stimulus: the weakest recovery since the Great Depression with private sector growth a minuscule 1.2 percent.
But that’s not the end of the tribulations that provoked a front-page Washington Post story beginning: “Is it time for Democrats to panic”? The sleeper issue is the cascade of White House leaks that have exposed significant details of the cyberattacks on Iran, the drone war against al-Qaida, the double-agent in Yemen and the Osama bin Laden raid and its aftermath.
This is not leak-business as usual. “I have never seen it worse,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 11 years on the Intelligence Committee. These revelations, clearly meant to make Obama look the heroic warrior, could prove highly toxic if current investigations bear out Sen. John McCain’s charges of leaks tolerated, if not encouraged, by a campaigning president placing his own image above the nation’s security. After all, Feinstein herself stated that these exposures were endangering American lives, weakening U.S. security and poisoning relations with other intelligence services.
Quite an indictment. Where it goes, no one knows. Much will hinge on whether Eric Holder’s Justice Department will stifle the investigation he has now handed over to two in-house prosecutors. And whether Republicans and principled Democrats will insist on a genuinely independent inquiry.
Nonetheless, there is nothing inexorable about the current Obama slide. The race remains 50-50. Republican demoralization after a primary campaign that blew the political equivalent of a seven-run lead has now given way to Democratic demoralization at the squandering of their subsequent post-primary advantage.
What remains is a solid, stolid, gaffe-prone challenger for whom conservatism is a second language versus an incumbent with a record he cannot run on and signature policies — Obamacare, the stimulus, cap-and-trade — he dare hardly mention.
A quite dispiriting spectacle. And more than a bit confusing. Why, just this week the estimable Jeb Bush averred that the Republican Party had become so rigidly right-wing that today it couldn’t even nominate Ronald Reagan.
Huh? It just nominated Mitt Romney, who lives a good 14 nautical miles to the left of Ronald Reagan.
Goodness. Four more months of this campaign and we will all be unhinged.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.