Axelrod Hopes 2012 Mirrors 2004

May 15th, 2012

Over the past year, I’ve often thought of the 2004 presidential election as a model for Obama. In 2004 Bush’s approval rating hovered below 50% for most of the year, hitting 50% only in the days leading up to the election. A few weeks ago, former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd made the comparison and articles written last week by Howard Fineman and Thomas Schaller delve further into the parallels between the two elections.

As Fineman notes:

Starting with Richard Nixon in 1972, and moving on to Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2004, Republican incumbents assembled a strategic doctrine that includes the following basic plays: Stress culture, and exploit cultural and regional divisions, especially if doing so helps detract attention from a so-so (or worse) economic record. Declare one’s own strength as commander in chief and the opponent’s ignorance or weakness (or both) in military and foreign affairs. Paint the foe as out of the mainstream and/or elitist in terms of money, education or both. Highlight wedge issues to expand fissures in the other party. Where possible, speak in sweeping historical terms about the greatness and uniqueness of the country. And evoke symbols of manly recreational endeavor.

In one way or another, Barack Obama already has used all of those, and it is only May.

As Schaller notes, the comparisons to 2004 are even more apt when you consider the parallels between John Kerry and Mitt Romney. Both men are rich Massachussets blue-bloods from prominent families who have tried to run away from their past political history. Both have a penchant for squandering political advantage by sticking their foot in their mouth at inopportune moments and both have struggled to connect with everyday people.

As Thomas Friedman noted earlier this year, both Obama and Romney can be seen as running on the theme of “I’m not Mitt Romney.” While Obama is implicitly making the “You may not like me, but at least I’m not him” argument that Bush made, Romney is running away from his own Massachusetts legacy as fast as he can. Friedman bemoans the strategy from both sides as one that fails to deal with the serious issues we face as a country, but the experience of 2004 shows how effective it can be as an electoral strategy.

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