Déjà vu in the American election? What the outcome of 2004 can tell us about what will happen in 2013 and beyond.
A beleaguered incumbent occupies the White House, struggling to win re-election. Hobbled by a sluggish economy, this incumbent’s biggest asset is national security. The challenger, meanwhile, is bland, aloof, and a generally middling candidate at best, someone who wrapped up the nomination not because they excited the party faithful, but because that saw him as the least offensive tool for removing the hated incumbent.
If you thought I was describing this year’s presidential election, you would be wrong. Rather, this is a similarly apt description of the 2004 presidential race between George W.Bush and John Kerry. Bush entered the election with public opinion on overall national security in his favor by a clear margin. Kerry held a slight edge on economic issues but was successfully derided as a flip flopper. This year, the script is flipped; the economy has come to eclipse other issues, while Democrats are enjoying a rare advantage on foreign policy. Mitt Romney struggles to make his case for change while trying to shake his ideologically inconsistent past .
But do these similarities actually mean something? It’s obviously too early to see if voters will make the same choice to leave the president unchanged, but the middling president/uninspiring challenger choice voters are faced with does not bode well for the post-election prospects of the US. This isn’t because the proposed policies of either candidate are necessarily bad; a quick look at both Obama‘s and Romney’s convention speeches shows they lack any, but it is because of the vague mandate that is produced by such a choice. Did the public express confidence in the incumbent, or simply reject a bad challenger? This ambiguity makes a great business for campaign advisers and the political commentariat, but not for governance.
Let’s look to what happened in 2004. Bush wins the election and proclaims that he has earned “political capital” that he now intends to spend. This turn of phrase, said in Bush Jr.’s easily mocked swaggering style, prompted characteristic scoffs in quarters of the Beltway press. The hard policy commitments he made included a Social Security overhaul, comprehensive tax reform, and appointing more conservative justices to the court. It’s instructive to look at what actually happened.
Social Security reform died the most public death. Despite months of pounding from the presidential bully pulpit, Democrats remained steadfast in their opposition to the plan, not proposing any real counter-proposals to the Bush blueprint. The plan’s lukewarm reception among the Republican rank-and-file in Congress did not do much to help. The vaunted tax reforms were outsourced to a congressional commission which turned out dual proposals Democrats and Republicans found ample reason to dislike. Appointment of conservative Supreme Court judges was only accomplished by virtue of the executive power in court appointments, and even that did not happen without a politically messy controversy.
A large part of the failure of Bush’s second term was the fact that his victory was not really an endorsement of the Bush agenda. The result was interpreted—with good reason—by political actors as simply a choice between Bush and Kerry, in which voters elected to stick with the Texan. The Obama campaign is pushing hard the narrative that this election is the same type of choice, and there are signs that voters are buying this framing. Presuming Obama wins out in just under a week, which is by no means a safe assumption, America will be in the same box it was in after Bush’s win.
As a final thought, keep in mind that all of this inaction happened while Bush had a Republican house and Senate to back him up in the first two years. If the polls are to be believed, an Obama redux won’t have that luxury in the House. Meanwhile even in the Senate, the best case scenario would still leave the Democrats with a majority vulnerable to the threat of filibuster.