The Last Two Weeks of the Campaign Are Directly Ahead: Cue the Liberal Populism

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Because I write my Dorf on Law posts on Thursdays and Fridays (with occasional exceptions), I have devoted my posts in the last two weeks to writing immediate responses to the first Presidential debate and the Vice Presidential debate (which took place on a Wednesday and a Thursday, respectively).  I have sequestered myself from the media chatter, offering unadulterated analyses of the debates, focusing on the candidates' discussions of the actual issues.

It has been a painful experience.  Thankfully, this week's Presidential debate took place on Tuesday night, leaving me free not to watch the debate.  (And Professor Dorf quite rightly passed on writing about the debate yesterday morning.)

I have thus spent the last day or so watching and reading the bloviatiors' reactions to the debate, as well as various clips from the debate.  I have discovered that Obama was quickly deemed the winner, rather conclusively.  Because I am supporting Obama in this election, that news is obviously better than it was two weeks ago.  Given the absurdity of the entire exercise, however, this is sort of like cheering when my team wins the coin toss at the beginning of a football game.  Yes, it is nice to see your guys win and the other guys lose; but it is not based on anything meaningful.

Romney did manage to live down to my low expectations of him, again asking us, in essence, "Would I lie to you?"  Responding to claims that his tax proposals do not add up, for example, he basically said: "Of course they add up!  I'm a businessman and a former governor who has balanced budgets.  I know how."  In other words, he does not need to prove that his numbers add up.  He only needs to insist that he is an able and trustworthy person who is offended by the suggestion that he is not telling the truth.  Would he lie to us?

The media narrative about Debate 1 is still insane, of course, and actually becoming more so.  An NBC news article actually said that Romney "ran rhetorical rings" around Obama.  Seriously.  Even the editors of the New York Times, in praising Obama's perfomance in Debate 2, ended with this head-scratcher: "Voters who watched the first debate might have been left with an impression that Mr. Romney was the candidate of ideas and that Mr. Obama’s reserves of energy and seriousness had been tapped out. On Tuesday night, those roles were reversed."

Romney was the "candidate of ideas" in Debate 1?  That is not even consistent with the narrative by which Romney supposedly won that debate.  It was not that he had ideas, but that he showed up and seemed a lot more interested in the proceedings than Obama did -- and, not incidentally, lied from beginning to end.  Romney was supposedly "commanding."  But now, after only two weeks of gestation, even left-leaning sources are completely revising the history of that debate.

What is now emerging from the second debate, however, is a notable change in tone in the campaign, especially from Obama's side.  Some of the debate's most-discussed moments include Obama's successes and Romney's failures in dealing with what might be called liberal populist issues.  Whereas Romney had been having some success making populist-sounding appeals that amounted to simply asserting that he has a plan to create jobs and balance the budget (and, apparently, to give cotton candy to all the good little children of the world), Obama was able to end the debate with an attack on Romney's "47% comments" -- comments that, as Obama cleverly described them, were made "behind closed doors."

The nationwide laugh-fest surrounding Romney's clumsy comments about "binders of women" is based on something much larger than his poor choice of words.  And his comments on immigration are also sure to lose votes.  Which means, again, that this has been a good week for Obama's supporters, and a bad one for Romney's.

A little more than a year ago, I coined the term "last two weeks strategy" to describe the common pattern in Democratic Presidential campaigns from 1976 onward.  Wherever the political center has been in any given election year, the Democratic nominee has spent most of the general election campaign trying to find it -- and, in many instances, move to the right of it.  For example, in 2000 Al Gore bizarrely distanced himself from his signature issue, environmentalism, in an attempt to seem non-liberal.  (As a longtime member of the right-leaning, anti-union Democratic Leadership Council, he did not have many liberal stands to repudiate.)

Late in each campaign, the Democratic candidate would need a boost.  Michael Dukakis in 1988 had blown a huge lead, and would ultimately lose.  Gore could not get traction against a then-unbelievably weak candidate.  John Kerry in 2004 needed to find something that could wake up his audiences.  In each election, the Democrat would suddenly rediscover his party affiliation in the last two weeks or so of the campaign, bringing out huge crowds and moving the polls in his direction as the campaign came to a close.

As I argued last year, this is not merely a matter of rallying the base.  It is, instead, the result of a series of center-right candidates who have never been comfortable with liberal positions, but who suddenly discover that those liberal positions are actually quite popular and can be politically effective.  This is unlike the Republican candidates, who (like Romney) try to distance themselves from their party's core extremism right through election day, because general election voters generally find that stuff scary.

In this election cycle, the pattern had changed somewhat.  Predictably, Obama had misspent most of his Presidency trying to move to the right of center on nearly everything (including, it is now important to remind ourselves, health care reform).  Coming out of 2011's debt ceiling debacle, however, Obama seemed to have rediscovered liberalism (or, at least, non-Tea Party-ism) early in the election cycle.  Obama thus took on a much more aggressive tone, and by the end of 2011 was sounding like a progressive Democrat again. (In the words of the NYT Editorial Board: "[Obama] made it clear that he was finally prepared to contest the election on the issues of income inequality and the obligation of both government and the private sector to enlarge the nation’s shrinking middle class.")

I was thus left wondering at the time whether Obama would run a 12-month version of the Last Two Weeks Strategy.  That possibility was quickly snuffed out, however, as Obama cruised through the first nine months of 2012 looking like he could win re-election on the basis of Romney's weaknesses.  By the time the calendar turned to October, Paul Krugman was warning about moves afoot among (over-)confident Democrats to betray the referendum on protecting Medicare and Social Security that this election might have been.

All of that changed with the first debate, and the nearly universal overreaction to Romney's perceived (and entirely content-free) "win."  Now, we really are in the last few weeks of the campaign, and Obama is in the same nail-biting situation that his predecessors have faced.  And what is working?  Liberal populism, of course!  If Obama pulls this off, it will be because he rediscovers the Last Two Weeks Strategy in the final weeks of the campaign.  That will still not stop him from trying to betray us later, but it will be powerful ammunition for those who will try to remind him how he managed to win this thing.