06/04/2012 11:12 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Unity Has Failed

Can President Obama get reelected the same way President Bush did in 2004? The recall election in Wisconsin on Tuesday will give us a pretty good idea.

Bush got reelected with a base strategy. He rallied conservatives with an "us versus them" campaign. Republicans demonized John Kerry and tried to discredit Democrats as soft on terrorism. It was an intensely divisive campaign that embittered the electorate.

The result was to drive up turnout, not just of conservatives, but also of liberals who were enraged by the Bush campaign. The strategy worked in 2004, but just barely. Bush got reelected with 50.7 percent of the vote.

In the end, the base strategy poisoned President Bush's second term. Social security reform, which was at the top of his agenda, got nowhere. Democrats got their revenge by taking over both houses of Congress in 2006.

In Wisconsin, the Democratic base was infuriated when Gov. Scott Walker terminated collective bargaining rights for public employees last year. For weeks, tens of thousands of protesters massed at the State Capitol and gathered enough signatures to force a recall vote. The showdown vote on Tuesday has rallied both parties in Wisconsin. National party leaders and outside labor activists have poured into the state. So has outside conservative money. Polls suggest that Gov. Walker may survive -- narrowly. Which may be one reason why the White House has not gotten involved in the campaign.

A defeat in Wisconsin would signal difficulty for Democrats. If the Democratic base can't prevail in Wisconsin -- a state with a progressive legacy that has voted Democratic for president in every election since 1989 -- how could the strategy possibly work in a conservative state like Virginia?

The core problem is simple. Conservatives outnumber liberals. Even in 2008, when Obama won by a comfortable majority, conservatives outnumbered liberals nationally by 34 to 22 percent. Rally the conservative base and you're two thirds of the way to a majority. Rally the liberal base and you're not even half way there.

What else can Obama do? Swing voters judge presidents by their performance. Democrats may have been hoping to run on the success of President Obama's recovery plan, but the latest economic figures undermine that argument. Instead, the jobs data invite Mitt Romney to run the campaign he's been hoping for -- one where he dismisses Obama as a failed president and claims it's time for professionals to take over.

Obama won the 2008 election as the leader of a political movement. A traditional campaign brings together a diverse coalition who agree on one thing: to support the party's nominee. They don't have to agree on anything else. Romney's campaign is based on that strategy. If you agree that Obama is a failed president, welcome to the campaign. No further questions.

Donald Trump's birther fantasies? No problem. Rush Limbaugh calling a female law student a "slut" and a "prostitute"? "It's not the language I would have used," Romney said. If Trump and Limbaugh oppose Obama, they pass the test. Asked his view of Trump's ravings, Romney responded fatuously, "I need to get 50.1 percent or more, and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people."

In 2008, Obama promised a post-partisan politics of unity. He called it "a choice between a politics that offers more of the same divisions and distractions... or a new politics of common sense, of common purpose, of shared sacrifices and shared prosperity."

It hasn't quite worked out that way.

President Obama's style has not been divisive, but his policies were. In the first few months of his Administration, Obama proposed a stimulus plan, a mortgage rescue program, bailouts of failing companies and health care reform. Obama saw those policies as practical solutions to urgent problems. Conservatives saw a sinister ideological agenda. It was their worst nightmare of big government.

Conservatives don't care about unity. They want victory. Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party candidate who defeated Sen. Richard Lugar in the Indiana Republican primary, defined unity this way: "I think bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view." Unity is a liberal value. Kum-ba-ya and all that. Conservatives prefer a combative style of politics. Conservatives are talk radio. Liberals are All Things Considered.

Unity has failed. So what's left for the Obama movement to rally around? Answer: progressive values. Tax the rich. End the war in Afghanistan. Denounce the Republican "war on women." Defend same-sex marriage. Offer young voters relief from the burden of student loans. Protect seniors from harsh entitlement reform. Those are the elements of a base strategy, and they require a good ground game. Republican Super PACS will dominate the air wars. Democrats are concentrating their resources on turning out grassroots supporters, just as Republicans did in 2004.

That's not "feel good" politics. It's "us versus them" politics. It was a good strategy for George W. Bush. But it's not who Barack Obama is. He has never appealed to voter anger -- which is the sentiment at the core of the recall campaign in Wisconsin this week.