Testing the Limits

Now and then the snails-eye-view of daily coverage of the presidential contest is punctuated by the Big Thumbsucker, the panoramic view that attempts to explain the big picture with more or less perspective and precision.

The latest BT treatment available is by John Heilemann at New York, which is based on extensive discussion with the Obama campaign staff and its allies in the poiltical and fundraising worlds. Its interest, if not its usefulness in understanding exactly what is going on in ObamaWorld, flows from its mirror-like reflections of the various anxieties the president’s team is willing to express. Will the economic numbers hold up or improve through November? What if Romney stops making gaffes that reinforce the Democratic message? What if Republican efforts to depress turnout about Obama’s young-and-minority “base” succeed, even marginally? What if some single event narrows the path to victory (e.g., a backlash against the president’s support for same-sex marriage takes North Carolina and Iowa off the table?).

But the main fear that is expressed in Heilemann’s piece is about money, and particularly the vast advantage Republicans are building in Super-PAC funds.

Axelrod is endeavoring not to panic. “We don’t know yet how big a problem it will be,” he says. “We’re actually about to test the limits of what money can do in politics, because there’s gonna be so much of it concentrated in so few states. The real question is, at what point is so much too much?”

By “testing the limits,” Axelrod is not simply talking about how big the money advantage to grow to be, but whether it will overwhelm or reinforce the general assumption that paid television advertising has a limited impact on presidential contests, particularly those where the target of the ad is a universally-known incumbent. And he may also be alluding to the message-coordination problem Republicans could face if the people running super-PACs decide the Romney campaign isn’t pursuing the most fruitful attack lines on Obama, reflecting the deeper lack of trust that conservative activists have in their candidate and his team.

The most useful part of Heilemann’s piece is this nice summary of how the 2012 Obama strategy differs from that of 2008:

In the campaign prior, any mention of Wright caused a collective coronary in Chicago; this time, it provokes high-fives. In the campaign prior, Team Obama boldly bid to expand the map; this time, it is playing defense. In the campaign prior, the candidate himself sought support from the widest possible universe of voters; this time, instead of trying to broaden his coalition, he is laboring to deepen it. Indeed, 2012 is shaping up to be an election that looks more like 2004 than 2008: a race propelled by the mobilization of party fundamentalists rather than the courtship of the center.

Conservative media and some MSMers will, of course, try to describe this scenario as one of a failed president seeking to distract voters from his responsibility for his record. Indeed, the title and subtitle assigned to Heilemann’s piece (for which I do not blame the author)–“Hope: The Sequel; for Obama & co; this time it’s all about fear”–perfectly represents what you will hear day after day about the deflation of the high spirits of 2008. At some point, we will be reminded of the famous “Mean Jimmy” segment of the 1980 presidential race when Carter sought to raise awareness of Reagan’s many radical issue positions over the years.

The reality is that the vast investment of the GOP and the conservative movement in the destruction of Barack Obama–and everything he represents–is approaching a potential payoff point, and it’s reasonable to expect them to double down–rhetorically and financially. The campaign will indeed “test the limits” of how far the conservative noise and money machine is willing to go, and how much power the incumbent has to push back or turn the tables. Anyone without deep malice towards Obama must surely understand he cannot and should not run a happy-talk campaign that simply boasts about his accompllishments and pretends the opposition is composed of good-hearted folk who are potential partners in governing. While the overall dynamics of the campaign do resemble 2004, it’s probably going to make that contest look like a pleasant exchange of views or a sporting contest where everybody dresses their wounds and gets ready for the next game or season. This one is for keeps.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.