Running On One’s Record, in 2000 and Now

In another Sneak Preview from the upcoming September/October issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris’ Editor’s Note offers a fascinating past-and-present discussion of presidential candidates reluctant to run on their own accomplishments. Part of it involves Paul’s personal reminiscences as a White House speechwriter in 2000 witnessing with alarm Al Gore’s unwillingness or inability to find a way to boast of his own administration’s accomplishments while distancing himself from the Lewinsky Scandal. He believes (as do I) that this strategic error contributed greatly (along, obviously, with a big assist from the U.S. Supreme Court) to the unfortunate phenomenon of the George W. Bush presidency. I’ll probably write more about that history later, perhaps in conjunction with Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention.

But the other thrust of Paul’s column focuses on the strange fact that we are in the midst of a presidential contest in which neither major-party candidate is talking a lot about his own policy record.

In the case of Mitt Romney, the explanation is pretty obvious: from practically the moment he left office as Governor of Massachusetts and set his site on the White House, he’s been running away from the positions he took in the Bay State–but not as fast as his national party has run away from the moderate conservatism and bipartisanship he generally embraced. An absolute condition precedent to his nomination this year was Romney’s repudiation of his own past self–especially his health reform legislation–and given his history of flip-flopping and the low levels of trust conservatives have in him to begin with, it was never really an option for him to “rediscover” his gubernatorial record for use in the general election. Initially, moreover, his campaign thought they’d be able to make the general election strictly “about” the incumbent’s record, crossing the threshold of credibility as an alternative to Obama with little more than an invocation of his success as a management consultant and as alleged savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics. It’s telling that even though that strategy has largely failed, Team Mitt is opting for a savage ideological campaign based on attacking things Obama never really did, instead of relying on any positive message about himself or his past.

But Obama’s the candidate who has had to make a lot of truly tough decisions about what to say about his first-term accomplishments. And Paul believes he’s underselling himself unnecessarily:

The truth is, no president could have quickly turned around an economy as badly damaged as this one was in 2009. History shows that recessions caused by financial crisis always take years to heal, and while Obama’s stimulus prevented a depression, it was nowhere near big enough to make up for the loss of demand caused by a 40 percent drop in the average American’s net worth. But as Michael Grunwald explains in his new book, The New New Deal, the administration used the stimulus to make investments and spur change in everything from green energy to medical research to public schools. These and other big moves during Obama’s first term, like the health care and financial reforms laws, have the potential to pay substantial economic dividends in coming years. Obama needs to tell the story of these accomplishments and how transformative they could be.

It’s always been very difficult for Obama to achieve the credit he is due for keeping the Great Recession from becoming the Great Depression Redux–it’s hard to prove negatives–and gets harder as memories of the fear and panic of those days before and immediately after he took office start to fade. But though he can’t campaign nearly as much on “tangible results” as Gore might have in 2000, he can make an entirely plausible if somewhat subtle case that he is putting in place the building blocks for a strong recovery that will get rid of the distortions, the inequality, and the under- regulation that fed the Great Recession and the period of middle-class economic struggles preceding it–while making the comparative case that Romney and a Republican Congress will tear those building blocks apart and make today’s suffering permanent.

If he can do that, then as Glastris suggests, there’s a potentially receptive audience:

A message about long-term payoffs might not seem like one today’s hard-pressed voters want to hear. But as James Carville and Stan Greenberg argue in their campaign book, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid, swing voters don’t believe that happy days are just over the horizon. They know that the economy, and their place in it, is in a precarious state that is years in the making and will take years to get out of. If Obama can find a way to talk to them honestly about what he’s already done as president, they might give him a chance to keep doing it.

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.