One of the reasons independents may be turning away from the President in this election is that he hasn’t lived up to the image he created for himself in 2008.
Why are independents independent? To be sure, some independents fall into the category of the “low-information voter” skewered so viciously by Bill Maher and so brilliantly by Saturday Night Live. But many independents are independent because they like some ideas from each political viewpoint, and they ardently wish for bipartisan cooperation.
Barack Obama won independents 52 to 44 in 2008 despite the fact that he was going up against John McCain, a hero of independents during the 2000 primary season. Independents probably reveled in candidate Obama’s message that there aren’t red states and blue states, there’s just the United States. Here was a man that promised to heal not only the black/white divide in America, but also the Red State/Blue State divide.
The 2008 elections would make that promise difficult to fulfill – not because the electorate didn’t vote for the President enthusiastically – it did – but because it was so unenthusiastic about Republicans. Barack Obama became President Obama not of a divided nation, but an unusually undivided nation – at least as it was represented in Washington. He had a large House majority and a large Senate majority. Maybe that’s the real test of whether a politician believes in bipartisanship – not when he has to work with both sides, but rather when he doesn’t.
In any event, he didn’t. He famously railroaded the Affordable Care Act through Congress without a single Republican vote. The stimulus bill passed with only three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House. He ignored the recommendations of his own bipartisan debt study commission, and every vote to raise the debt ceiling became a pitched battle, in part because the White House had shown zero leadership on getting control of an out-of-control budget. As late as 2011, the President had visited every U.S. state except for 10 red ones.
Independents are often independents because they distrust big government, and they see the Republicans as stronger on keeping government out of the private market and they see Democrats as stronger on keeping government out of private lives. So to see the president fail to negotiate bipartisan consensus particularly on economic issues – a bloated health insurance bill, an unpopular, unaffordable stimulus bill, and frequent requests to increase the debt ceiling – those are double-whammies for independents. The ones who are really paying attention may have also noticed that President Obama’s budgets get no support from Republicans or Democrats.
Would Mitt Romney be any different? There is at least some reason to think so.
Consider the history of the two men running for office in 2012. Obviously, they are both successful people. You don’t become a Presidential nominee without considerable skills. But consider how each got to be where they are today.
If Barack Obama is successful at anything, it is at being a politician. After going to law school, he became a law professor, then community organizer, then state Senator. He rose in Chicago politics, then Illinois politics, then gave a major speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In all of these things he rose above his peers, shone brighter than the hundreds or thousands of others who were competing for the same position.
But who does one have to please in order to obtain these successes? Democrats. Barack Obama has always – and only – had to please Democrats in order to become who he is. I don’t mean this as an indictment, I mean this as a historical fact. To rise at Harvard’s law school, to organize Chicago communities, to become nominated to run for Illinois state senate, to give a key speech at a Democratic National Convention – one achieves these things by being the best damn Democrat one can be. By gaining the trust of other Democrats. Negotiating with, and out-maneuvering – Democrats.
What about Mitt Romney? Romney was, first and foremost, a businessman. One of the things businessmen (and businesswomen, of course) rarely ask each other is: Are you a Democrat or a Republican? First, it’s an irrelevant question. Business decisions are rarely based on politics. Friendships and marriages might fail over political disagreements, but there’s no reason in the world why business partnerships would. They might fail for other reasons, but if they fail over politics, you weren’t a good enough businessman in the first place – a good businessman doesn’t let politics get in the way! Second, it’s a dangerous question. Business success is always about forging relationships and earning trust, and the last thing you want to do is give your potential ally a reason to distrust you.
For President Obama, success was about pleasing the like-minded. It was about being the very best Democrat he could be. For Romney, it was just about being the best he could be. There’s no easy routes to earning trust in the business world, other than assuring the other person that you’re not going to lose them money. Everyone’s skeptical in business, whether it’s a worker, a partner, or a potential investor. The successful businessman has to be able to see the world through the other person’s eyes. And that’s not easy when the other person doesn’t necessarily see the world the way you do. When you’re in a bubble, like career politicians are (or career academics, to remind you of the point of my blog), that’s very easy to do – until you get outside the bubble, that is, and have to deal with people who are not like you.
Of course, Mitt Romney became a politician. But even there he was tested. When Mitt Romney became governor of Massachusetts, he wasn’t able to say “There aren’t red states or blue states, there’s only the United States.” What he could have said was “There aren’t red states – there’s only blue states!” Governor Romney only dealt with people outside his bubble, but fortunately for him and for Massachusetts, he had a lifetime of experience to draw on when doing so.
It is no accident that when he reminded people during the debates the his legislature in Massachusetts was 87% Democrat, the needle – especially for independents – moved decisively in Mitt Romney’s favor. It might even be argued that this singular fact, bolstered by his positivity on the campaign trail and reasonableness during interviews and debates, is the single-most important factor in the rise in his personal favorability ratings in the last two months of the campaign.
Even Romney’s tactless “47%” comment probably reflects less his own personal beliefs about the nature of the electorate than it reflects his ability to see the world from the perspective of his audience (in that case, wealthy right-wing donors dismayed at the growth of government entitlement programs).
It is hard for anyone to run effectively with the “Washington outsider” label, because even candidates who were governors (the “outsiders” Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush) came up through a political system in which they first had to please the like-minded (with George W. Bush probably having the best outsider claim of this group). And to be sure, Mitt Romney has been eying the White House since 2006 or so, which can’t reasonably be done any more without glad-handing a lot of like-minded party insiders and donors.
But people’s behavior is formed when they are young. When Barack Obama was greasing the Democratic party machine in Illinois and ingratiating himself with Chicago progressives, Mitt Romney was remaking companies and soliciting investments from people of every political background. If independents are looking for a person who might lead on tough issues, who might find consensus on entitlement reform or trimming government spending, then the choice seems clear. They do say in business that past performance doesn’t guarantee future success, but every businessman who says that will wink at you and tell you their lawyers told them to say that.