Twenty years ago, James Carville popularized the catchphrase, “it’s the economy, stupid” to winning effect against President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election. Now Mitt Romney is betting that “it’s the ideology, stupid” will be an equally effective mantra to unseat President Obama. After spending the spring and summer muddled in a neck-and-neck race by focusing exclusively on the economy, he’s brought entitlements, health care, welfare, debt and American exceptionalism to the forefront of an increasingly ideological race.
Critics have scratched their heads, wondering why he would appeal to the conservative base when he badly needs to win over the remaining undecided voters in the middle. Why, when the economy is by far the biggest issue for voters, is the Republican ticket focused on secondary issues? But by running on charged ideological issues, he has the potential to fit the missing piece of the puzzle -- connecting voters’ vague dissatisfaction with the president’s performance with a series of unpopular policies he’s pursued.
The strategy has worked according to plan. Romney’s laser-like focus attacking Obama’s record on issues has brought him to within one point of Obama, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, the closest he’s been in months.
Take Medicare, an issue that Democrats expected to bludgeon Romney on after he brought Paul Ryan and his controversial budget into the picture, the traditional Democratic advantage has disappeared. Not only that, but a new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows more voters trust Romney to handle Medicare than Obama, 45 percent to 42 percent.
That surprising turnaround, against most pundits’ expectations, was a result of launching a barrage of ads attacking Obama for his own changes to the Medicare system as part of his unpopular health care law. Team Obama was caught by surprise: Despite the Obama campaign’s bluster that picking Ryan would doom Romney, it took them a week to muster a television ad on the subject, and it was surprisingly defensive.
The Romney campaign’s sustained offensive on welfare -- hitting Obama for loosening work requirements -- has clearly made its mark. One of Romney’s advertising strategists, Ashley O’Connor, said it was their “most effective ad” at a Tuesday forum hosted by ABC News/Yahoo. The Obama campaign quickly taped an ad rebutting the charges, a sure sign as any the hit was effective. The Obama administration claims its executive order gives states more control over the program, but it’s understandable if skeptical voters aren’t as trusting. Obama was a liberal critic of former President Clinton’s welfare reforms in the 1990s, and has battled Republicans to keep unemployment benefits flowing during the downturn.
And it doesn’t get more ideological than pounding the president for his improvised riff last month in Virginia, where he sounded like he was downplaying the role of individual enterprise. The “you didn’t build it line” has become a GOP meme, but it doesn’t just strike a nerve with the base, but with small business employers struggling in the stagnant economy.
Indeed, bringing up these hot-button issues have been characterized as pandering to the base, but they’re also designed to win over many of the disaffected independent voters. Welfare was once a major Democratic vulnerability; it made political sense for Clinton to rebuke his base and embrace reforms proposed by House Republicans. Medicare is an issue that Democrats have frequently invoked against Republicans; now the tables are turned.
It’s easy to forget, but Republicans swept the 2010 midterms not through a sweeping indictment of Obama’s economic stewardship, but by hammering Congressional Democrats over their support of the president’s health care law, the stimulus and Democrats’ pursuit of a cap-and-trade energy policy. Running on a firmly ideological agenda, House Republicans picked up 63 House seats – a larger pickup for Republicans than in any election since 1946.
What’s remarkable is that all the fundamental indicators from that historic moment have hardly changed – and in some ways, have worsened for the president. The 2010 midterm NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed 32 percent believing the country was headed in the wrong direction; their latest poll shows that “right track” number exactly the same, with even more believing the country was on the wrong track. Obama’s job approval in the October before the midterm was at 47 percent; it’s only inched upwards to 48 percent in the most recent survey.
Remember: Obama isn’t actively campaigning on most of the policies he advanced during his three years in office, save for the bailout of GM and Chrysler. He’s relying on caricaturing Romney as a crude capitalist, while broadly contrasting his agenda as protecting the middle class. No mention of the stimulus, with only sparing mentions of his health care law and historic support of gay marriage -- usually to his most ardent supporters at fundraisers.
Polls show the economy being the most important factor in voters’ decisions, but all these tangential issues have direct impact in their views of the candidates’ economic competence. The Romney campaign, for example, is making the case that trimming spending and tackling entitlement reform, are steps to ensure the economy’s long-term health.
One of the most significant takeaways from the national polling over the last several months is that Obama’s job approval rating has remained relatively stable even as their perception of the economy have dropped markedly. There’s a plausible argument that voters are resigned to a “new normal” -- it’s a theory that my colleague Ron Brownstein first broached last month.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Romney campaign reached the same conclusion, even if they won’t admit it. They’ve tacked away from a generic critique of Obama’s economic performance -- the “prevent defense” strategy -- and gone full bore with the ideological red meat. So far, it’s working.