“Swing Independents are searching for leaders who will articulate a positive vision for the future – one where the American economy is back on top and the next generation can achieve the American Dream,” the Third Way memo reads. “Economic opportunity is a framework that responds to their anxieties and is associated with strengthening and growing the economy.”
Extremism is in the eye of the beholder. Democrats are confident that Romney’s embrace of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s sweeping Medicare reforms is a colossal political blunder, and they marvel at the possibility that Ryan could even be his running mate. But this survey, consistent with Gallup polling illustrating a center-right electorate, suggests that voters more closely identify with the overarching Republican message of an opportunity society over the Democratic message centered on economic security.
Obama is misinterpreting the lessons of Clinton’s successful campaign in 1996, simply believing that he can cast Romney and Ryan in the roles of Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich. Then, as now, the Republican Congress lurched to the right, giving the president ample opportunity to both own the center and rebrand himself as a new Democrat, while still offering a sharp contrast with the opposition. Obama’s got his attacks against Republican down pat, but he’s forgotten about moving to the middle. Despite claiming that he’s governed as a moderate, Obama has rarely broken ranks with his party’s congressional leadership, as Clinton did with NAFTA and welfare reform. Merely mounting a reactionary defense of the way things have been done in the past isn’t enough anymore.
Making things even tougher for Obama is that the country has inched to the right over the last 15 years. Then, Clinton could hammer Republicans over opposing environmental regulations, which polled exceptionally well. It was a driving force behind the Clinton comeback in 1996. But in a down economy, Obama’s similar attacks aren’t having the same impact. The party’s cap-and-trade vote in the House, designed to regulate carbon emissions in a market-friendly fashion, was a driving force behind Democratic congressional losses in the Rust Belt during the 2010 midterms. There’s a reason why formerly environmentally minded Republicans (such as Romney and Gingrich!) have sharply tacked to the right. They’ve moved along with the public.
Much of this presidential campaign’s coverage has focused on style over substance – Romney’s Etch A Sketch moment and Obama’s hot mic, to name a few recent examples. But every indication is that this general election will be one of the most ideological in many years, with both candidates embracing the core argument of their increasingly homogeneous parties’ bases. Obama may be confident that he can persuade voters with the power of the bully pulpit, but if the message is off, the pulpit won’t do him much good.