With over 2 $billion still to be spent and five months to go, Obama and Romney war rooms have some freedom to experiment.
Republicans would like to raise dark questions about the inner nature of a president who’s been in all our homes and personal communication gadgets for four years. So far, however, they’re not committing significant resources to redefining Barack Obama.
Democrats, on the other hand, are already taking a significant risk: They’re saying that the profit-maximizing mission statement of Bain Capital—Romney’s formative professional home—can’t restore the US economy, that good government isn’t just good business practices writ large. They are trying to take the economy issue back from the Reagan Republicans and their sunny rhetoric.
When Democrats talk about “services” and “sharing,” Republicans talk about “freedom” and “opportunity.” But Republicans don’t settle merely for bland abstractions; they also reply with “death panels,” bureaucrats, and Europeans.
Conservatives accept that it’s all right to be called a “populist,” if you win. In approving and defending advertising attacks on Romney’s years at Bain, Obama has clearly decided that he can bear that accusation as well. Many thoughtful commentators have taken offense. Sebastian Mallaby, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, concluded:
“If the president wants to go to war with private equity, he will have to explain why he is against companies such as Toys R Us and Burger King. Meanwhile, he should recall that he won the last election at least partly because his opponent seemed clueless on the economy. Before he launches another populist broadside, Mr. Obama needs to ask himself: does he want to be the candidate who looks clueless this time?
It’s obvious that Obama will go further than most Democrats have dared to go to win—or, rather, to not be America’s first one-term black president.
He is not, however, running against John McCain. He’s running against an opponent and a Republican Party that are believed to be superior economic managers. Their winning reputations, however, hang more on their management of the rhetoric of economic leadership than on their performance in office.
Republicans don’t explain Schumpeter’s term “creative destruction.” They rely on the Muzak conservatism of Frank Luntz to tell them what to say. In this election, they’ve been told to talk about “the job-creators” and “job-killing” regulations, and to stay away from harsh terms like “profits” and “capitalism.”
Obama can’t enter a fight over how to manage the economy and let the Republicans control the language of the debate. He can’t defend taxes or regulations without talking about what “profit” and “capitalism” can—and cannot—do.
The Democrats would be foolish to think that Bain Capital and investment banking will be defining election issues.
However, in nominating an investment banker, the Republicans have put themselves in a dangerous spot. They’ve burdened their own message with an extraordinary assignment: that after you’ve strangled the federal government’s spending powers, untaxed dividends and profits can solve America’s social and economic problems.