Is Romney the Republican John Kerry?
It seems as though nothing is more thrilling for political pundits than finding historical contexts for present day elections. Every election cycle they search for a historically analogous election that will shed some insight on the upcoming one. Pundits wax poetic about whether the 2010 midterms more closely resemble 1994 or 1982, for example. It’s often appeared to me to be a fools errand, using superficial similarities to help justify their present day prognostications. With that said, today I’m going to do just that.
It appears as though the Republican nomination has been wrapped up by Mitt Romney. We’ve written at length about the uneasy process through which Mr. Romney has appeared to solidify his place as the nominee. His rivals have been unable to capitalize on their success and create a winning coalition that unites the disparate strands of the Republican party. And thus they’ve been left with Mitt, who seems to excite no one, but has convinced enough folks that he’s the most electable.
It was this term ‘electability,’ that gave me flashbacks to a dark time. The year was 2004 and George Bush was in office. Bush and Obama seem to arouse a similar vitriolic response, both were portrayed as outsized caricatures of each parties particular personification of evil. Bush was a swaggering war criminal, and Obama is a Kenyan Muslim socialist. To defeat these evil characters it makes sense that both parties eschewed ideological purity for this strange sense of ‘electability.’
Mr. Bush’s rival in 2004 was, of course, John Kerry. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Romney have some obvious traits in common. They are both exceedingly wealth, moderate, aloof, from Massachusetts, and seen as flip floppers. These are the kind of trite superficialities that pundits usually draw on, but the similarities are more than skin deep.
The biggest issue in 2004 was the various wars the U.S. was waging. Kerry made sense as a candidate because he was a bonafide war hero. In contrast to Bush, who went AWOL, Kerry would supposedly be able to speak about U.S. military intervention in a well informed way, and attacks on his dovishness could be refuted by his earlier heroism. The major issue in this cycle will likely be the economy. Romney, who is quick to tout his ‘private sector experience,’ will be able to speak with some credibility on how to fix the economy. In 2004 the Republicans eviscerated Kerry’s war heroics with attacks from the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth. Similarly, Democrats will likely point to Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and argue that he killed jobs. Though the accuracy and mootness of these arguments are different, they’ll likely function in the same way.
Moreover, Kerry’s ability to talk about the wars was undercut by his votes for the war. Romney won’t be able to raise the issue of Obamacare, a redmeat issue for the Republican base, without Democrats reminding that Romney created a similar system of Healthcare in Massachusetts.
It all comes back to this issue of electability, both parties were desperate to beat these incumbents, and sought candidates that they thought could appeal to moderates. While Howard Dean or Michelle Bachmann may have been saying things that more closely aligned with the base of their respective parties, they both had flaws and appeared unready for primetime. Instead voters seem to want a well-coiffed candidate who looks the part, and is uncontroversial.
2004 was a close election, John Kerry acquitted himself well as a candidate, but he was unable to excite anyone. Republicans were able to paint him as an uppercrust flip flopper and Kerry was unable to connect with voters. His loss came down to a couple hundred thousand votes in Ohio, so it’s hard to begrudge his candidacy or even argue that a different candidate would’ve done better. Still, it’s not hard to imagine that some potential anti-war voters were turned off by Kerry’s flip flopping on that issue. Similarly, Mitt Romney may alienate potential voters because of Romneycare and his general lack of conservative bonafides. One thing about the 2004 election that seems almost assuredly to repeat itself, is the hard fought, close nature of the race.
(photo courtesy of Politico)
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