Monday, July 16, 2012

Before the gun sounds.

Watching the presidential contest has been like watching the beginning of an America’s Cup race. The gun does not sound for the beginning of the race until Labor Day, after the parties hold their conventions and Americans fully engage in the contest. The summer months are a time of pre-race maneuvering, as Team Obama and Team Romney are jockeying for position, seeking to define the terms of the race to come.

Despite Democrat euphoria during Republican primaries that seemed to turn back the clock on such settled matters as contraception—and pushed Obama’s reelection odds above 60% on Intrade—Mitt Romney emerged largely unscathed. This week, Real Clear Politics shows the race at 47-45, with Obama up by just 1-3 points in the critical states of Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and the new swing state, Michigan. In rough terms, Obama needs two of these states to win, Romney three, but by any measure, this is now a race.

The two sides largely view the race in the same terms. Each side has to motivate its own base, and each is fighting for the still-undecided center. And each side has chosen to make the appeal to the center largely a referendum on the Other Guy. The Republican argument is that Obama has made a hash of the economy. The Democrat counter argument is that it was hash when he got there and he is doing as much as he can with a stridently negative Republican House blocking him at every turn. The Democrat argument is that Romney is a plutocrat who cares not a whit for the large swath of the American electorate. It is the Republican counter argument that seems passive and unfocused.

There is nothing new in attacking Mitt Romney for his years at Bain or his uncaring mien. Mike Huckabee’s famous quip that voters would ultimately disdain Romney because he “looks like the guy that fired you” has become the essence of the Obama strategy to define Romney before the fall race begins.

Making the opponent unacceptable is a time-honored strategy, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. In 1964, Democrats succeeded in defining Barry Goldwater as unstable—if not an outright lunatic—in a campaign that culminated with the classic "Daisy" campaign ad. On the other hand, in 1980, Jimmy Carter sought to define Ronald Ronald Reagan as a dangerous alternative—in the vein of Goldwater—and led in the polls through the summer, only to see the strategy ultimately fail as Reagan was humanized through the fall, and ultimately won handily following the debates. For their part, Republicans used the strategy to great effect in 2004, when the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry through the summer left his campaign sorely damaged once the fall campaign arrived.

The Romney campaign response to Democrat attacks seems to reflect either a lack of preparedness or a view that what happens now will not materially matter once the real race starts. It is simply inconceivable that the Romney camp did not anticipate the Bain attacks—after all, Romney has faced them before. Nor does it seem possible—despite Abby Huntsman's suggestion that Romney would resign the campaign before releasing more tax returns—that the campaign does not ultimately plan to release all of Romney’s financial information. Therefore, one has to believe that we are watching a rope-a-dope strategy of letting the summer weeks go by, content to let Team Obama punch itself out. And to date, Team Romney may be right. After all, the national numbers have remained in the range of 47-45 for some time, and the salient point of this is that as long as the President cannot sustain his numbers above 50%, the race is very much in play.

If this is the plan, the moment that seemed discordant was Romney’s demand for an apology. Apologies, and specifically demands for apologies, are just not part of the game. Or as Mitt Romney himself lecturedMike Huckabee in 2008, rule number one in politics: No whining.

Romney’s demand for an apology evinces weakness—particularly to a President who is now famously picking individuals to be targeted by cruise missiles. This is not a normal stance for a Republican facing a Democrat. But more than just violating his own political rule, by whining about attacks on Bain and outsourcing Romney is missing an opportunity to take on the central issue that has been missing from this presidential race.

Both candidates have given lip service to this race being about the middle class, yet there has been little substantive discussion of what that means. This is a real area of weakness for President Obama, whose understanding of the economy appears shallow and whose selection of advisors has been poor. On the other hand, Romney’s work at Bain should provide a window into the real forces that have affected the U.S. economy over the past thirty years. Specifically, outsourcing is a symptom, not a cause, of the problems affecting the middle class. The potential of bringing manufacturing jobs back to America is a good thing, but even that discussion has avoided the larger question of what it would take for America to regain a sustained competitive advantage in the global economy. As long as we don’t discuss our history and the causes of decline, it is difficult to make meaningful policy decisions going forward.

Richard Nixon remains a cloudy and widely reviled figure in our politics, who lived out his years in disgrace, yet his presidency marked the turning point in our modern economic history. He ended a war in Vietnam that was escalated by two Democrat presidents. And more importantly, he began the process of normalizing political relationships with our two greatest political adversaries, the Soviet Union and China. In the economic realm, he ended the Gold Standard and birthed OPEC as an economic force, both of which contributed to the emergence of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency.

The ensuing end of the Cold War brought hundreds of millions of workers out from behind the Iron Curtain and from formerly insular economies such as India into the world labor market. During the years of the Cold War, Democrats and Republicans alike envisioned a free trade world that would replace military hostilities and the threat of nuclear war with economic competition involving our former adversaries. And so it has.

The decline of the American middle class in the face of new, global competition should have come as a surprise to no one. Over the past three decades, nations across the world have build their own economies through labor competition tied to pegged currencies that allowed them to deliver low-cost goods to the U.S. consumer market. The fact that real incomes in the U.S. have largely been flat over the past several decades could be seen as a triumph, given the circumstances. Plunged into competition with nearly free labor, one can imagine that the devastation of our economy might have been far greater.

Unlike the President, Mitt Romney had a front seat during this era of massive economic change. He sat in corporate boardrooms where decisions were made to reduce costs or otherwise seek strategic advantage. Reducing costs and seeking competitive advantage are part and parcel of corporate strategy in competitive markets. Companies do this, or they die. And seeing such companies survive rather than die was the work that Bain Capital specialized in. If Bain Capital advised its portfolio companies to outsource manufacturing or services—and it is inconceivable that it did not—this was not out of animus to workers, but just part of the job. That is the way it is in the real world.

And the way it is in the real world is what Mitt Romney and Barack Obama should be talking about. The American worker has been lied to for decades. Election year after election year, politicians pronounce the American worker the best in the world, as if this was meaningful. Rarely does a politician speak the truth: for decades now, American workers have been thrown to the wolves, first in the interest of Cold War foreign policy, and more recently in the interests of a political and corporate elites that profit mightily from globalization.

Along with outsourcing, political contributions have become a critical tool for seeking competitive advantage. The impacts of free trade and political cronyism have been the focus of political campaigns on the right and left. Pat Robertson, Ralph Nader, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich each spoke to these issues, in nearly identical terms. Each have pointed out in great specificity how our economic, budgetary and military policies have undermined the middle class and served corporate interests, yet each were marginalized and ultimately ridiculed by the aligned interests of the major political parties.

Today, the plight of the middle class is debated in terms of inequality. Yet this debate has focused on who pays how much in taxes—epitomized by the Occupy movement “single, clear demand” for a Robin Hood tax—which again is a symptom of the problem, not the cause, rather than on global labor and currency markets.

Mitt Romney maintains that his campaign is about the plight of the middle class, yet so far, he has had little to say beyond the normal prattle about knowing how to create jobs. He has failed to show how his inside experience in the corporate world combined with his experience as a governor of an industrial state give him a unique insights into the nature of global economic competition, and the ability to craft solutions that might aid the plight of working Americans. There is a case to be made for changes that would be directly enhance our competitive advantage as a nation—such as ending pegged currency relationships, building low cost energy as a national competitive advantage, addressing structural deficits—but Romney has not made that case. 

This is the response that Romney has failed to make as the onslaught continues from the Obama campaign. No apology will be forthcoming, and none should be. Bain did—during Romney’s tenure or otherwise—what Bain was supposed to do, what the rules of the competitive marketplace dictates that companies must do. If there is an apology to be made, it should be from Romney for his failure to make good on the central argument of his campaign: that he understands how the economy works, and can translate that knowledge in to a positive vision for renewal of the American economy.

For the next six weeks, the respective presidential campaigns will seek to define the terms of the race to come. The Obama campaign is an open book. As the incumbent, he has no choice but to run on his record. Its challenge will be to motivate its base to replicate the turnout it achieved four years ago—knowing that the moment of inspiration is past—keep the focus on Romney's character and Republican recalcitrance, and convince independent voters that the President remains their best option.

The Romney campaign is far more opaque, as even its summer strategy seems to lack focus. Unlike the President, the Romney campaign has all of the tools in place to assure a motivated base, from John Roberts’ treachery, to the stewing resentments around contraception funding, to the ultimate motivation: the thought of four more years of Barack Obama occupying the Oval Office. Ironically—given Romney's bona fides as a moderate, blue state governor—Romney’s challenge will be the independent vote. That vote disdains the passions of the Republican base and is looking for more than a negative motivation. Perhaps the Romney campaign summer strategy is playing rope-a-dope, dumbing down expectations before a campaign of shock and awe to win the center. Endorse Simpson-Bowles, break up the banks and tackle campaign finance excesses.

Or perhaps what we see is what we get, and Mitt Romney doesn’t really have anything to say. Or as one Massachusetts pol commented to me a while back, "you'll see, there really is no there there."