Politics is a blood sport. President Obama is not, by temperament, a warrior. That's why he lost last week's debate. Obama is rational, deliberate and thoughtful. They are good things if you're a college professor. They're not if you're fighting a battle.
Democrats were enraged by Obama's performance. It was bloodless. He didn't show enough fight. Partisans expect their standard-bearer to be ruthless and aggressive. Especially if your opponent gets down and dirty, as Mitt Romney did. You're expected to do whatever it takes to win. Remember how Lloyd Bentsen humiliated Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate ("Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy")?
Obama represents the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. It's dominated by educated upper-middle-class liberals. They don't like a lot of fighting. You could call them NPR Democrats. NPR is talk radio for liberals: All Things Considered. Conservatives do not consider all things. They consider what they damn well want to consider.
The Clintons represent the populist wing of the party. They get the support of working class white voters who like their politics bloody. Hillary Clinton was their champion in 2008. She ran as a fighter. "One thing you know about me is that I am no shrinking violet," she told her supporters. "If I tell you I will fight for you, that is exactly what I intend to do." Obama promised to end all the fighting. He argued that voters were not "looking for politicians to be calling each other names and acting with a lot of bluster."
Democrats got shellacked in 2010 because the populist wing of the party dropped off. White working class voters never trusted President Obama, and when he failed to deliver on the economy, they abandoned the Democrats. Obama is struggling to win them back. Bill Clinton helped with his speech at the Democratic convention last month. "The auto industry restructuring worked," Clinton told the cheering delegates. "It saved more than a million jobs." That was something President Obama neglected to mention during the debate.
Mitt Romney fought dirty. He made a lot of claims that were false or deceptive. Like when he said, "I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans." President Obama's response? "If you believe that we can cut taxes by $5 trillion and add $2 trillion in additional spending that the military is not asking for -- $7 trillion, just to give you a sense, over ten years that's more than our entire defense budget -- and you think that by closing loopholes and deductions for the well-to-do, somehow you will not end up picking up the tab, then Governor Romney's plan may work for you." Huh?
Romney claimed that "pre-existing conditions are covered under my [health care] plan." That was misleading. They're only covered in Romney's plan if you already have insurance. Obama's reply? "What your plan does is duplicate what's already the law, which says if you are out of health insurance for three months, then you can end up getting continuous coverage and an insurance company can't deny you if you've -- if it's been under 90 days." Technically correct, but how many people got that Obama was calling Romney a liar?
Romney fashions himself a turnaround artist. He used the debate to turn around his image, from a right-wing ideologue in thrall to the Tea Party to a reasonable and compassionate moderate. "Regulation is essential" ... "What we did [on health care] in Massachusetts is a model for the nation" ... "We care for those that have difficulties." Like the 47 percent of Americans who depend on government support that he denounced a few months ago at a private fundraiser? President Obama never protested any of Romney's claims.
Did conservatives object to Romney's newfound moderation? Not at all. They were full of praise for his debate performance. They want Romney to do whatever it takes to bring Obama down. They were delighted that Obama wouldn't fight dirty. In fact, he wouldn't fight at all, which is what drove Democrats crazy. In the next debate, Obama may not have much of an opportunity to fight back. It's a town hall, where the questions will be asked by undecided voters. Undecided voters are not partisans. They don't like a lot of fighting.
Obama's performance last week matched the stereotype of the weak liberal. That was the image created by George McGovern in 1972, who said he was "a thousand percent" behind his running mate before dropping him from the ticket. And Walter Mondale in 1984, who got pushed around by the special interests. And Michael Dukakis in 1988, who looked ridiculous riding in a tank. Democrats used to be tough guys. That was in the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys. If you dared to defy any of them, you paid a price.
In the 1932 campaign, FDR promised an audience in Pittsburgh that he would balance the budget while cutting back government by 25 percent. He did neither. Roosevelt's press secretary asked the President how he should respond if reporters asked him about that promise. "Tell them I've never been to Pittsburgh," FDR said.
President Obama needs to pick up some of that spirit if he wants to win this election.
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