Through the early stages of their contest, the leading Republican presidential candidates generally avoided collisions that could hurt the eventual winner in the general election. But that has changed in a hurry.
Over the past two weeks, Newt Gingrich and fallen front-runner Mitt Romney have taken hits (some self-inflicted) likely to leave lasting marks. Most damagingly, in a remarkable exchange on Monday, Gingrich and Romney each delivered a biting on-camera summation of the case that Democrats want to make against the other’s record.
It’s difficult to imagine that those volleys won’t turn up in Democratic campaign ads as soon as the GOP race is decided, if not sooner. “We all kind of know how you beat an incumbent: The country has to decide it wants to un-elect the incumbent, and then it has to decide the other guy is acceptable,” says one prominent GOP insider close to both men. “We are breaking down that safety factor. We are really giving the Democrats what they want—which is to make this into a choice, not a referendum.”
Republicans are understandably optimistic about crossing the first threshold in that two-step. Despite some recent positive signs in the economy, the public persistently gives President Obama negative grades on his economic record. In the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, released on Thursday, the share of adults who said that Obama’s agenda had decreased their opportunities significantly exceeded those who said that it has improved their prospects. (That’s especially true among whites.) Obama’s overall approval rating stood at just 44 percent.
“Let’s keep an eye on the big picture,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said at a National Journal event this week. “Three-quarters of the country thinks we’re on the wrong track.… Sixty-one percent think the economy is worse [since Obama took office]. That is an incredibly difficult hill for an incumbent president to climb to win reelection.”
In that environment, Democrats acknowledge, Obama must shift the campaign’s focus as much as possible from a retrospective judgment on his performance to a prospective comparison with the GOP nominee. That’s where the latest turn in the Republican race could matter. In the campaign’s early stages, Romney, in particular, displayed unusual discipline in keeping one eye on the general election. On most issues, such as his tax proposals, he crafted positions conservative enough to avoid presenting his primary opponents with easy targets, but not so conservative that Democrats could easily portray them as extreme. (By contrast, Gingrich’s 15 percent flat tax and his plan to carve out private accounts from Social Security could offer Democrats richer ammunition.)
The big exception to that pattern was immigration, where Romney veered rightward to sharpen his contrast with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and then with Gingrich. That shift has probably reduced Romney’s potential support among Hispanics, many of whom have cooled toward Obama. The other partial exception was Romney’s support for the plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to convert Medicare into a voucher, or premium-support, system, which faces stiff resistance in most polls (including 62 percent opposition in the new Heartland Monitor). Romney, however, had generally kept his support qualified and muted.
No more. Romney last week lavishly praised Ryan’s plan as a means of challenging Gingrich’s conservative credentials. When Ryan unveiled his proposal last spring, Gingrich criticized it with characteristic flamboyance. Both Romney and Gingrich say they would modify Ryan’s blueprint by maintaining conventional Medicare as an option for seniors (Ryan eliminated it altogether). But Romney, hoping to flank his rival on the right, has indicated he would make it more difficult and expensive for seniors to remain in the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program than Gingrich would. In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, Romney even declared that it was “unlikely that Medicare will remain an open-ended fee-for-service-type product” under his plan. Expect Democrats to frequently repeat that prediction next fall if Romney gets that far.
Democratic ad-makers are even more certain to reprise the accusations that the two GOP front-runners traded on Monday when each described the other in exactly the searing terms that Democrats want voters to take home. Romney portrayed Gingrich as a Washington insider who grew rich by trading on his connections “on K Street.” Gingrich portrayed Romney as a corporate raider who got rich by “bankrupting companies and laying off employees” during takeovers. That’s the Romney portrait that Democrats want to paint. If Romney wins the nomination, as Democratic pollster Mark Mellman put it, “by Election Day [he is] going to be seen as the cause of the economic problems, not the solution.”
Lengthy primary struggles can toughen the survivor, energize the party, and publicize the case against the incumbent. But as they persist, they can also produce deeper bruises, not to mention self-inflicted wounds such as Romney’s impulsive offer to bet Perry $10,000 during last weekend’s Iowa debate. Presidential reelection contests are primarily a referendum on the incumbent’s record, and that benefits the GOP. But the choice between the incumbent and the alternative matters at the margins, and Democrats are enthusiastically welcoming the harsh new turn in the GOP race.
This article appears in the December 17, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.