As George W. Bush accepted his party's nomination at the 2004 Republican National Convention, attendees gleefully chanted "Flip-flop! Flip-flop! Flip-flop!" when the president addressed John Kerry's vote on an $87 billion funding bill for the Iraq War. For months, the Bush campaign depicted the Democratic challenger as an aloof, equivocating, out-of-touch elitist. Their narrative culminated in a devastatingly effective campaign ad that September that showed the candidate windsurfing and switching positions back and forth with the prevailing winds of the day. "John Kerry: Whichever Way the Wind Blows" was arguably the most effective attack ad in any presidential election since Lyndon B. Johnson's "Daisy" in 1964 and it had a profound impact on the Democratic challenger's image with voters.
Republicans would have been wise, however, not to gloat over creating such a one-dimensional and easily re-castable character since it was only a matter of time before one of their own would perfectly fit the role. Enter Mitt Romney. In Romney, the GOP now has a John Kerry of their very own -- and, in more ways than one, 2012 is shaping up to look a lot like the drama of 2004.
The most obvious comparisons between Romney and Kerry are, of course, the shifts in position on issues that matter to voters. In 2004, Kerry famously -- and fatally -- "voted for the $87 billion before [he] voted against it" and Bush hammered him relentlessly for his purported vacillation on education reform and Medicare premium increases. But Romney, too, has an abundant share of significant pole reversals on substantial red-meat conservative issues like abortion, gay rights, climate change, Reagan economics, and Grover Norquist's "No Tax" pledge.
Romney, who once was a registered independent and was a decidedly moderate governor of a very blue state, seems to have reversed himself on linchpin Republican values, adopting a newly minted conservatism just in time to pursue his unbridled presidential ambition. That perceived opportunism has bred distrust and suspicion among the party faithful, illustrating another glaring similarity between the two candidates: lack of enthusiasm for them from the base.
Howard Dean energized and excited Democratic voters in 2003 when he vowed to "represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party." He was widely viewed as the fearless fighter necessary to take on Bush in 2004. But, aided by a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and the "rawwwwwrrrr" heard 'round the world, enthusiastic engagement gave way to pragmatic trepidation when primary voters saw Kerry as more appealing to moderates and independents and, therefore, the most electable horse in the race.
GOP primary voters in 2012 have likewise abandoned their hearts and guts to make the same bet: despite their appeal to the visceral inclinations of the base, Rick Santorum's ideological rigidity, Newt Gingrich's personal baggage, Rick Perry's intellectual incapacity, and Michele Bachmann's uniquely unhinged brand of crazy would prove too unpalatable to a majority of Americans to beat a personally popular and savvy incumbent. Republicans instead will nominate a candidate who neither excites nor inspires the base.
The parallel? In 2004, Democrats chose an uncharismatic, wooden, super-rich intellectual from Massachusetts who was painted as a flip-flopping, out-of-touch elitist. In 2012, Republicans chose an uncharismatic, wooden, super-rich intellectual from Massachusetts who was painted as a flip-flopping, out-of-touch elitist -- only it was by his own party and during the primaries. And the similarities in character and image are further illuminated by analogous circumstances in both elections.
It is now conventional wisdom that Kerry's fumbled and delayed response to the unfair Swiftboat attacks in the summer of 2004 irreparably damaged his candidacy and image with voters. He appeared weak and incapable of owning his strengths against Bush as an experienced foreign policy expert and decorated war hero in an election that was focused squarely on national security. This year, Romney struggles to capitalize on his own perceived strengths against President Obama as an experienced financial sector expert and successful businessman in an election hinging on the economy.
Romney has offered a mind-blowingly haphazard and panicked defense on questions about his tenure at Bain Capital and the timing of his departure from it, exacerbated by evasive -- and possibly obfuscating -- refusals to release more than two years of tax returns. The president has Romney against the ropes on these important issues, much like Bush did with Kerry, and he shows no signs of relenting. Meanwhile, Romney's indignation and insistence on apologies subordinate him to a defensive posture burdened by an unshakeable pall of weakness and timidity.
The incumbents' political strategy is hauntingly similar as well. Republicans so decimated Kerry's character and service in 2004 that he was, in many ways, damaged goods before he even accepted the nomination at his convention. The Obama campaign, whether fairly or not, now has stolen a page from that playbook and Romney, like Kerry, has failed to get out in front of the issue, take control of the message, and end the controversy once and for all. It may prove to be his undoing in November, particularly given an electorate that is as divided as it was in 2004.
At this very week eight years ago, Kerry led Bush by an average of 1 percent in national polls. The average lead goes to President Obama now, but only by the same statistically insignificant one-point margin; and a new CBS News/NY Times poll does reflect a marginal lead for Romney. In short, the race is now -- as it was then -- tied.
But even a cursory glance at voters' polarized feelings then and now show striking similarities that could spell trouble for Romney. At this point in the race (mid-July) in 2004, Bush's personal favorability and job approval ratings were nearly identical to Obama's now.
Personal Favorability for incumbent president in July (favorable:unfavorable):
Bush ('04) 52%-46%.
Obama ('12) 52%-46%.
Job Approval for incumbent president in July (approve:disapprove):
Bush ('04) 49%-47%.
Obama ('12) 46%-47%.
Bush, of course, went on to win the election despite the often-repeated "conventional wisdom" that an incumbent president running for reelection with less than majority approval is in trouble.
But it is on personal favorability that the two challengers most differ. Kerry garnered a personal favorability rating of 55 percent (higher than Bush's) at this stage of the race in 2004 but went on to lose the election anyway. And Romney, whose personal favorability ratings have increased dramatically since he secured the nomination, has only reached 50 percent at the same stage in 2012 and underperforms Obama. Indeed, given all the congruities between the two races, it doesn't help the former governor that he also falls short in likability and similar metrics.
A recent Gallup poll shows voters find Obama far more likable, honest and trustworthy, understanding of Americans' problems, and sharing of their values.
Presidential elections aren't won on likability alone, but 2004 shows that a candidate that is already viewed as aloof, out-of-touch, or not as likable as the incumbent faces an uphill climb. To make matters worse for Romney, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner reinforced his likability deficit when he said earlier this month, "The American people probably aren't going to fall in love with Mitt Romney... 95 percent of the people who show up to vote in November are going... to vote for or against Obama." He's probably right. But it's bad news for the governor, because if the election of 2004 teaches anything, it's that partisan hatred of the incumbent just isn't enough to win a presidential election.
There is one final and very significant difference in the dynamics of the two races that was made plain last week when Obama released his "Firms" ad. In 2004, the election was about national security. And while Karl Rove and company successfully painted Kerry as weak in that area, they never laid blame for 9/11, terrorism, or the bungled Iraq War on the senator. This year, however, the single most important issue in voters' minds is the economy; and Obama's attack ad goes one gargantuan step further than just painting Romney as weak on that front.
In the brutally humiliating ad -- using only Romney's own tone-deaf voice and a few fact-based quotes from major publications -- Obama lays the blame for our current economic doldrums at the feet of people like Romney, pushing the narrative that Wall-Street fat cats, mega-wealthy investors, and predatory financial sector companies rig the system in their favor to the detriment of the average American. The implication is clear: Romney -- and those like him -- "is not the solution, he's the problem."
2012 looks a lot like 2004, but Kerry never had to defend himself against the accusation that he himself played a significant role in the primary problem at hand.