For me, this election is 2004 déjà vu all over again, even if the scenario may seem at first glance to be reversed.
In that election, if you recall, all the talk was of John Kerry torching George W. Bush in the debates. Kerry had so much knowledge and so much experience, people said. Dubya had so many mistakes in his first term, people said.
None of it mattered.
Now, let’s not forget that John Kerry was a terrible candidate of epic proportions–stiff beyond belief, dull, pompous, patrician. He had all the characteristics that give candidates in a Presidential election the advantage with nobody ever. Still, that charisma vacuum on Kerry’s part was surpassed by a factor of ten by how awful and incompetent Dubya had been on every issue.
Despite “winning” every single debate–Kerry still lost ground. Dubya’s mountain of lies covering up massive failures on every level–including an ever-increasing pile of corpses in Iraq–only seemed to help the dynamic that ultimately guided voters decisions in favor of the GOP.
How did that happen–how is that happening again?
If you believe, as I do, that there is a broad framework governing the debate–that there is an unspoken “big story” inside of which all of the smaller stories unfold in an election–then the answer lies there.
In 2004, Bush won by pushing a broad, cynical narrative about “keeping us safe.” Even if he was on duty at the biggest moment Americans were not kept safe since, maybe, the attack on Pearl Harbor–his campaign managed to set that big story. No matter how much the Democrats accused him of lying, it didn’t matter so long as the big story held firm.
In 2012, we are in the same situation–the GOP big story seems to be holding in place the narrative as we head to the finish. What is that big story?
I read it as something like this: Obama wastes money.
No matter how much Romney lies about his past record or changes policy positions or acts in ways that are downright offensive–so long as the “Obama wastes money” big story stays in place, he seems to gain ground.
The Obama campaign, for its part, has not spent enough time setting in place its own big story to challenge that being pushed by every flaming head of the multi-headed right-wing hydra. Instead of a big story, the Obama campaign is pushing a slogan “forward” and an argument “give us time to finish the job.”
I believe the Obama slogan. I agree with the Obama argument. But I am not in the demographic that seems to matter in this final stretch of a close election.
It is a significant statement by itself about how much the country dislikes the Republican Party and Mitt Romney that so many voters have stuck with the President on the basis of a campaign that has not offered a viable alternative narrative framework.
Remember: I am still optimistic about Obama’s chances. A steady trend of statistics show him in front and even gaining a little ground since the Denver debate.
But even in the face of the statistics that lean towards Obama, I am also realistic, at this point, about the narrative slipping away from him.
And here’s the clincher: this kind of framing–the big story–works best on the category of voters called “undecideds”–the 64 voters in Ohio, 19 in Colorado, and 6 in Virginia who will ultimately decide the outcome in November.
In the last debate of this election, therefore, I suspect we will see very little that is different from the Romney campaign. Mitt will show excessive aggression to fire up the base that already supports him. And then, in a few key moments, he will lower his voice and in a very gentle tone tell viewers that President Obama wastes money. And in that moment, the undecided voters will find reassurance.
It is a sad state of affairs, but I don’t make the rules.
At this point, it is too late for President Obama to set an alternative frame in the third debate, such that it could have any significant impact on the narrative heading into November. The best he can do is to make sure he shines as much light as possible on Romney’s attempt to frame the debate and at the same time pivot away from it.
Every time Romney tries to re-enforce the “Obama wastes money” frame–or any variation of it–the President needs to hit back by stealing the ball and switching the story.
My suggestion would be to switch the story to how contemptuous Mitt Romney is to 99% of the American public–and how his economic plan is no less than sadistic in its attitude towards middle class and working families–towards anyone who isn’t a golden-toilet-seat tycoon.
In other words: the President needs to make sure he does not re-enforce the GOP frame, even in this final debate and then repeat, repeat, repeat all those examples that pull the rug out from Romney’s phony compassion and ersatz empathy.
I do not envy the President right now.
I have spent way too much time thinking about why Democrats are not nearly as good at setting a broad narrative frame as Republicans and still I have not hit on a satisfactory answer. Maybe FOX news is to blame, maybe it has to do with the conservative or liberal “mindset”–who knows.
But I do know that the Democrats ignore this dynamic at their own peril. Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist at this stage, we can all agree that the election results will be very, very close.
And so, keeping the last few “undecideds” focused on the correct big story will be a crucial–if not THE crucial–factor in the final few weeks.