Tomasky and others are focused on the wrong things when they are doubting Mitt Romney’s general election prospects.
Tomasky is a generally insightful pundit. Unfortunately, too often his judgement is critically clouded by his partisanship. Early december he speculated about Romney out losing the primary, which I suspect was simply out of his wholesale dislike for Romney’s politics. Other recent topics include the typically embarrassingly banal outrage at republicanism in general. He obviously thinks that Obama is strong going into the fall, but the facts don’t match the partisan wishful thinking.
At beginning of this primary season it became clear that Obama’s job approval numbers signaled rough waters ahead for his reelection bid. As noted by Gary Langer, since 1940 four other presidents have gone into their re-election year with approval ratings under 50 percent – Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Only Nixon won reelection. The state of the economy, the unpopularity of congress, the media’s portrayal of a broken government, the mounting debt and downgrade left most americans horribly unsatisfied with what was going on in Washington. Despite Obama’s claims that his achievements were superior to all prior presidents save FDR, the narrative in the news simply didn’t reflect that (whether bogus or accurate).
The poor reputation of Obama is somewhat unfounded, but entirely understandable. In real policy terms, I have a great deal of respect for his administration and his presidency. As I expected, his actions as president reflect an ideology of pragmatist with moderately progressive leanings. However, his ability win politically has been hampered by too many factors to count. As a result, every crucial measure indicates Obama is an exceptionally weak incumbent president. There is no getting around it – Obama is vulnerable (and he knows it).
Romney is not the extreme and easy to embarrass candidate the Obama team wants to face. Early on, some pundits speculated that a Romney who was forced to move sharply to the right in the GOP primary would be easy to defeat. But Romney has not had to do that. Instead, he has retained his reputation as a moderate, a label which is reinforced by every other republican he is currently facing.
In November there will be (yet again) a Republican moderate v a Democrat moderate. Last time, Obama won by a slim margin that was heavily influenced by the unpopularity of the former republican, and this time around the vote could easily turn the other way. Even this early on, I can tell you the factors that will ultimately decide how the coin falls in November will not include Romney’s weaknesses as a political ideologue or his personal baggage.
Despite the attention it is getting now, Mitt’s status as a businessman will not hurt as much as some think. Certainly, the narrative of Mitt Romney as a 1%er will be good for energizing Democrats, but Romney does not need to win Democrats. As always, the election will hinge on each candidate’s ability to attract moderates/independents. His involvement with Mass health care and Obama care only makes him seem more moderate, and the big opportunity for that to hurt him (the primary) has since passed without great consequence. His income tax rate, which is a result of his semiretirement and reliance on capital gains, is an overblown non issue (although capital gains tax in general might enter as a liberal talking points). In general, attacks on Romney as a businessman have not and will not land.
It is plain to see that this list of “baggage” amounts to nothing categorically disqualifying in a general election.
As Tomasky rightfully points out, Obama’s best chance in reelection falls entirely outside of his administration. His fortune as a candidate will largely be determined by the state of the economy, which will largely be determined by what happens in Europe. When we get a better picture of the economy in November we will have a better idea what our presidential politics will look like in November. Generally, without a major change in the economy his approval numbers will probably remain between 45% and 55%, riding the middle. The other factor is who becomes the Republican nominee. In every way, his chances for reelection are reduced by a Romney nomination.