Those Other “Referenda On the Economy”

After all the incessant citations of the 1980 and 1992 presidential elections as “proving” that elections involving incumbent presidents are by an iron law of nature referenda on their perceived management of the economy, it was refreshing to read Michael Crowley’s article at Time reminding us that those earlier elections weren’t all that simple, either. In 1980:

Reagan’s campaign wasn’t singularly focused on Carter’s economic record. Reagan extensively blasted Carter on foreign policy (including the Iran hostage crisis and alleged weakness against the Soviets in Afghanistan and elsewhere). He depicted the President as wimpy in general, proclaiming that “There is a leadership crisis in America.” And he peddled a vigorous anti-Washington message (“Get the government off our backs”) that fired up both Goldwater conservatives and blue-collar Democrats.

And in 1992:

With unemployment again around 7.5%, Clinton based his campaign against George H.W. Bush around a slogan that has become a cliche: “It’s the economy stupid.” But the campaign’s informal motto—written by strategist James Carville on a sign at campaign headquarters—was actually more nuanced. It featured two other, little-remembered lines: “Change vs. More of the Same,” and “Don’t Forget Health Care.” It’s a reminder that Clinton’s campaign was about far more than a simple critique of the economy. He was also selling a universal health care plan, promising to reform Washington, and had an otherwise ambitious policy agenda that included overhauling welfare and industrial policy-style noodling.

Now it’s possible that the wizards running Mitt Romney’s campaign are simply the first to have had the benefit of all the political science literature on earlier elections, and thus know in a way that Reagan’s and Clinton’s wizards didn’t that the only valuable thing their candidate can do to influence an election that will largely be determined by macroeconomic indicators is to draw attention to the bad numbers as monomaniacally as possible. But I think there is something else going on.

Even most “referendum” dogmatists accept there is a “credibility threshold” challengers must overcome to defeat even an economically vulnerable incumbent. (Adolph Hitler, for example, might well struggle a bit, particularly in hitting his marks among black and Jewish voters. ) Reagan had to deal with perceptions he was a lightweight and an extremist, so he talked a lot of policy. Clinton wasn’t terribly well known, and as someone with a hayseed accent like mine, also had to show his own policy chops on a broad range of issues.

Mitt Romney is running as the nominee of a party vociferously attached to policy preferences that are not at all popular with non-Republicans. He has a vague reputation as a moderate, and has worked very hard to come across as a non-ideological technocrat. The last thing on earth he wants to do is to get into specific policy discussions. So he’d be campaigning monomaniacally on Obama’s economic record, refusing to talk about anything else, even if there wasn’t a “political science consensus” that voters don’t really care about anything else.

Thus, we are destined to experience a campaign that often feels like a debate between a policy wonk and a dunce, and that would probably be the case even if the economy was doing a bit better. To put it bluntly, Romney needs swing voters to stupidly take their own temperature about how they feel towards the economy as the election nears and vote accordingly, ignoring the actual policy choices the two candidates represent. So his message is going to be pretty stupid, too. Crowley wonders aloud if Mitt’s message might be a little one-dimensional, given the realities of those earlier campaigns that supposedly provide guidance for 2012. I suspect it’s the only dimension in which Romney can win.

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.