We are in the season of political skywriting — of stories that capture attention, but not the decisive realities of the presidential contest. For all but tabloid purposes, why pay attention to the ravings of Donald Trump — except to score a minor point against Mitt Romney for taint by association with a comb-over in a clown suit?
The fundamentals of 2012 are set now and should be entirely visible even if they don't dominate a 24-hour information cycle ravenous for the latest titillation or speculation. That is all but inevitable as we cross from the pyrotechnics of the primaries, which provided real if weird news like Rick Perry's campaign-killing brain freeze, to the ramp-up of the ad wars and the run-up to the conventions and debates. The ads have just begun, and even early results are not yet in. The latter two events are a summer away. The interregnum invites the rise of sideshow stories — which, in recent days, featured hand-wringing over Obama's ads about Bain and recycled theories about dumping Joe Biden.
So first, the fundamentals — and the factors that might actually reshape them.
The president enters the general election with an electoral college advantage, a coherent narrative, and a powerful case against Romney that squarely fits that narrative. He's drawn his dividing line: Who stands up for you and who stands up for the few? Romney, for his (newly found) part, still has a worn and one-dimensional message that rests uneasily on the proposition that as a job creator in the private sector, he's the one to create jobs for the country — although he stumbled last week by promising higher unemployment at the end of 2016 than the level projected under current policies.
Bain's on the airwaves and Biden's on the ticket. And that won't change.
There are legions of national polls, some involving relentless daily tracking, which tell us... well, not much that matters, except that Romney is rock bottom with Hispanics and Obama has high levels of African-American support: 88 percent in the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey. That will certainly go higher and secure him somewhere around another 1 percent of the overall popular vote. But what matters, of course, are the battleground states, and Romney needs to win a whole lot of them to reach 270 electoral votes.
The real and obvious danger to the president is the possibility of economic slowdown or downturn. Romney and the Republicans are rooting for it — and the austere and doctrinaire chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, may actually provoke a deepening European slide that infects both the American and the global economies. In the face of the eurozone crisis, she is a profile in stolid stubbornness — and Obama's most dangerous opponent may be Merkel, not Mitt.
Other crises that could transform the race constitute a Rumsfeldian array of unknowns. The most knowable of them is a potential but far-from-certain confrontation with Iran that could lead to armed intervention from the U.S. or Israel followed by a constriction of world oil supplies and an escalation of prices at the pump. As I have argued before, this would be a double-edged sword, and no one can be sure which way it would cut politically. So far, in every testing moment overseas, the president has performed superbly as commander-in-chief, and subsequently in his poll ratings. That's not an unlikely outcome again if, at his orders, the U.S. has to smash the Iranian navy as it attempts to block the Strait of Hormuz.
If you are inside a campaign — Obama's or Romney's — such are the trends and turns you weigh, and welcome or worry about. And for me, that is all too knowable: I witnessed the impact of the Osama bin Laden tape suddenly released the Friday before the 2004 election as John Kerry was inching ahead.
But today, we are instead watching the skywriting about the Bain ads and Biden.
New York's John Heilemann, co-author of the classic Game Change, just wrote a fascinating piece that reported but didn't endorse the timid lament of some Democrats, "in both politics and business," that the president was polluting his brand: They regard the Bain commercials as "too divisive, too conventional, and too nakedly political." There is something conventional, and sensible, about drawing a defining contrast with your opponent. There's nothing conventional about the moving stories told in their own words, from workers whose livelihoods were plundered by Romney's plutocracy. Indeed, the candidate can barely talk about this; he's as tongue-tied as he was when similar ads confounded his effort to unseat Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994.
What highly recommends the Bain approach is the Republicans' reaction: They really don't like it because it is the ground of a narrative that plainly, unforgettably, positions Romney as a beneficiary and champion of economic injustice — in the private sector and now in public life.
I suspect Heilemann, who has the 2008 campaign flowing through his journalistic veins, realizes that holding Romney to account is no game-changer for the Obama brand. Four years ago, in the speech that opened the path to his improbable victory in the Iowa caucuses, he did talk of reaching across the partisan divide, but in the very next paragraph warned: "...if those Republicans come at me...I will take them head on." They're coming after him again — and just as he did with John McCain, Obama is taking them head on.
Listen to the president now. He does push the differences with Romney; but out on the stump, he's also hopeful; he continues to call for change — a message recalibrated to fit the trials of the last four years and the possibilities of the next four. He summons the nation: "Forward." That's not what gets attention in the media. But Obama's no patsy, and he's not about to take the advice to be above the battle, or just invoke the "better angels" of his 2008 campaign.
Right now, he's winning the battle to make the contest a choice, not a referendum. Like Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1936 arraigned the "economic royalists," Obama is likely to reinforce and enrich his brand, not subvert it. There's evidence for that in the Kennedy-Romney Senate race. Before the Bain commercials, Kennedy's favorable and unfavorable ratings were about equal. After two weeks of the ads, his favorables were suddenly 57 to 38 and climbing. We had no positive spots on at that point. What explained the shift was that Kennedy, by taking up the workers' cause, was powerfully communicating to the middle class and working families of Massachusetts that he was on their side.
As he moves on to issues like protecting Medicare and tax fairness — and yes, jobs — Obama will have laid the predicate for his overall case: He's the one who will fight for a future fair for all.
And fighting at his side all the way to November will be his once and future running mate Joe Biden.
While there may be a remnant of disgruntled Clinton partisans yearning to see Hillary replace Joe on the ticket, I believe that most of this noise is coming from Republicans only too happy to sow doubt and dissension in Democratic ranks. Thus The Weekly Standard's William Kristol, a leading neo-con and Fox News commentator, has dispatched his advice to the president: "Dump Joe Biden." Call in Hillary: "Why not the best?" Kristol's solicitude here — he claims he wants the GOP to defeat the strongest possible ticket — is a transparent form of crocodile tears over false Democratic distress.
Kristol is wrong. The swap will never occur — and it shouldn't.
It's not just that disposing of Biden would signal profound presidential weakness in both politics and character. The truth is that Biden strengthens the president in critical industrial states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he was all but the third senator — and in Florida, where his pro-Israel record offers powerful reassurance to Jewish voters. But what about that Gallup Poll showing Biden with a net unfavorable of 14 percent in 12 swing states? It's way out of line with other surveys. And that's not the essential point anyway. Biden, as he proved in 2008, can connect with the blue-collar Democrats, the Reagan Democrats, who Obama has had a harder time reaching.
Beyond this, Biden plays a vital role inside the White House; early on, he pushed to scale back America's goals and footprint in Afghanistan. That's the course that has now been adopted, along with his recommendation to rely far more on special forces and drones. Incidentally, I'd love to hear Biden go after Romney's policy of keeping a lot of U.S. troops indefinitely in Afghanistan. Here's another issue Mitt won't want to discuss; he's out of step with 69 percent of the American people — and who better than Biden to call him on it?
Finally, it takes two to switch, and there's no compelling argument for Hillary to do it. If she intends to finish her term as Secretary of State, leave public office permanently, and turn to public service through a foundation with global scope, why would second place on the ticket change her mind? She's too smart to buy the argument that as a running mate, she would make the difference and save the party; indeed Kristol covets her presence so the GOP can simultaneously defeat Obama and Clinton.
And if she contemplates a run of her own in 2016 — and despite her denials, I am convinced she does — she has no need to be vice president and every reason to step back and recharge. As a candidate next time, she would be a dominant frontrunner — nearly undefeatable in the Democratic primaries. Her role as America's diplomat-in-chief, her overwhelming support among women, her appeal to African-Americans with no Obama in the race, and the near certainty that she would lead in every demographic would open the way for her to defeat say, Jeb Bush, and secure 16 progressive years in the White House. Clinton versus Bush: Sometimes history does repeat itself.
By all accounts, the president is close to Joe Biden — and has absolutely no intention of replacing him. The notion is a hothouse story, admittedly fueled by Biden jumping ahead of Obama on marriage equality. Some White House insiders promptly and anonymously assailed their VP in the press, which only plays into the hands of the GOP. It was amateurish and alien to the customary discipline of the Obama operation. It appears to have stopped, and I'd bet it's the president himself who's shut it down.
Obama has also been resolute about the Bain ads. He won't be deflected by a few Democrats gathered in the critics' corner, by reporters anxious for a fresh if irrelevant story, or by the subversive tactics of Kristol and the Republicans. The president comprehends the big forces driving the election. He sees the value of his running mate — in office and in constituencies that count. He sees the power of a widening critique of Romney as the economic royalist of 2012.
So Bain's on the airwaves and Biden's on the ticket. And that won't change. And who knows? There are plausible scenarios under which Joe could be picking his own running mate four years from now.
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