In two previous installments -- first, and second -- I asked Samuel Popkin, a political scientist from UCSD, how the logic of re-election campaigns he lays out in his new book The Candidate applied to this year's race.
Here is round 3.
There are three big news developments of the past week, which matter in real-world terms and also in their potential framing for the presidential election. In our last round, you talked about one of them -- the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the related Afghanistan news.
But let me ask you about the other two: The often murky drama of Chen Guangcheng in Beijing, and the ever-murkier prospects for recovery in the U.S. economy. From the Republicans' point of view, the rhetorical stance on each issue seems fairly obvious. Mitt Romney should say that the administration mishandled the Chen case -- and be vague enough about it that "mishandling" will apply to any eventual facts or outcome. And he should say that for three-plus years the administration has mishandled the economy.
Is that, in fact, what a challenger should say? And what is the right response for an incumbent running for re-election? As a bonus question: As we prepare for a bath of weekend analysis/chat on these issues, what should we be on guard for, as a predictably fatuous pundit line on these events?"
Mitt stubbed his toe on Chen by jumping too fast.
When he proclaimed that Thursday was a "day of shame," he rushed to judgment before the dust had settled. [JF note: Bill Kristol agrees!] Ronald Reagan would have said something similar to "Like all Americans I hope the President will still save Chen, and restore the faith in America of everyone yearning for freedom who depends on America."
"Mishandling" is a good word for Mitt to use now when he describes the Chen situation since it has mostly been resolved. He could even say the President put Chen at risk by having his people rush Chen out of the Embassy; and that he was bailed out by the actions of Christian activists or Hillary - either way a nice insinuendo (if I can coin a new word).
Before the month is over I bet that at least one columnist or comedian says that Romney would never have messed up this opportunity if he hadn't panicked and muzzled his gay ex-foreign policy advisor when anti-gay activists complained .
As the challenger, Mitt has the advantage on the economy. No matter how many new jobs are created he can point to times when the recoveries were faster and note that the low number of 115,000 jobs added, or even if it were 250,000, would have been treated as disappointing in the past.
As the incumbent, Obama can talk about the number of total jobs gained since 2010 or the fact that the decline was in government jobs not manufacturing, but that is all in the realm of defensive "yes, but" answers.
I have no idea what the employment figures will be in the fall but assuming they are slightly better than now -- otherwise nothing to crow about -- Obama will have to make a case that "After me the deluge."
Fatuous Lines to Avoid
Maybe we should have a little icon that looks like Polonius to put on the fatuous lines we will now hear.
Commentators will say ad nauseum, "it's the economy, stupid," without understanding why that famous line of James Carville's was so smart. When I revisited 1992 for my book, I started to sense that James added "stupid" to the phrase to cow journalists and divert them from social issues or daring to ask what "the economy" meant in that election.
People care about different aspects of the economy. We have had political upheavals over inflation, unemployment, interest rates and taxes.
Right now the major focus is on jobs, but don't forget that the Tea Party revolt wasn't about unemployment or inflation, it was about taxes and protecting entitlements for the deserving by slashing entitlements for the undeserving. And how much praise is Obama reaping on Wall Street with the market up but the Bush tax cuts about to expire?...
I suspect Mitt's Swiss bank accounts will be raised again to raise doubts about the trickle down job-creating benefits of tax cuts for the very top bracket. For example: "How many jobs does a Swiss Bank account create?"