I am not alone in predicting that this election might be a replay of 1980, where the Republican candidate (Ronaldus Magnus, in case anyone needed reminding) blew open a close race in the last week. I can see a lot of voters who went for Obama wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt right up to the last minute, even as especially many evangelical Christians who voted for Carter in 1976 had some residual sympathy for him, but in the end decide against it, and thus generating a landslide.
But there are flaws in this comparison. National Review’s Jim Geraghty pointed out several problems with this theme in a fine piece yesterday on NRO. The nation’s demographics are different today than in 1980 (advantage: Obama); the state of foreign policy was a much greater wreck than today, though give Obama time, and he might still match Carter’s fecklessness toward Iran. But give him his due: unlike Carter, at least Obama is willing to order that some bad guys get killed. Jim also thinks late events won’t be as important.
These are all good caveats, but I think he misses one big difference between 1980 and today, and one that I think I have mentioned here before. By the time of the 1980 election, even many liberals understood that the nation’s bad economy was the result of government failure; indeed, even the Carter administration had begun deregulating basic industries and embraced Milton Friedman’s basic monetarist thesis, and many liberals were on board with the basic idea of pro-growth tax reform, though not Kemp-Roth. In that context, the ideal candidate to overthrow the old order was the long-time critic of government failure, Ronaldus Magnus.
But the economic crisis that reached a climax starting in 2008—the collapse of a housing bubble that has turned into a nearly global banking crisis—looks to many people as a case of market failure. This is true even of much of the Tea Party, which is suspicious (with some justification) of Wall Street, big banks, and crony capitalism. Never mind the extent to which this housing bubble and crash can be attributed to government failure, too (Fannie Mae, Community Reinvestment Act, etc.—all true). That doesn’t matter in politics. What matters is mass perception, and changing those perceptions is a damn difficult thing to do in a presidential campaign.
Which brings me to Romney. One of his problems is that, as a person with a background in what appears to be purely finance capitalism (Bain was more than that, but again—it is perception that counts), he appears to many swing voters as part of the problem that brought us the market failure of 2008. In other words, he’s not well positioned as Reagan was as the idea critic of the present problem to exploit the mood of the people. Hence the Obama team’s attack on Romney’s Bain record. I discussed this point with David Brooks on the radio on Tuesday, and he said that he thinks most people make a distinction between honest commerce and entrepreneurship and the misdeeds of finance capitalism. I hope so, because that is the distinction Romney needs to get right.
Obama has handed Romney a gift with the “you didn’t build it” comment, not to mention Obama’s completely stinky Solyndra-style crony capitalism. But there’s the challenge for Romney: he has to figure out a way to turn the attack around on Obama. If he can do that, he just might indeed reprise the 1980 result.
In any case, I think we’re looking at the wrong election for comparison anyway. I’m hoping the 2012 election will represent the repeal of the 1912 election, since Obama is the perfect epigone of Woodrow Wilson’s Progressivism. That would be an even better outcome.