All you need to know about the week the Democrats just had can be summed up by noting that both President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton, the two best campaigners their party has seen in decades, had to clean up verbal messes they’d made earlier. And, oh yes, Mitt Romney’s campaign raised more money last month than Obama’s — by more than 25 percent.
None of this was part of the narrative that prevailed at the start of the general election a few weeks ago. According to that script, it was Romney’s campaign that had sputtered through the primaries, at times struggling to fend off what Texas Gov. Rick Perry later joked was the weakest GOP field in history — although there was an element of truth to that characterization.
It was Romney whose sometimes maladroit comments — “I like being able to fire people” — were taken out of context but nonetheless helped fuel claims by the Democrats that he was a wealthy plutocrat, an out-of-touch businessman who didn’t understand the lives of working people.
By the time Romney effectively wrapped up the Republican nomination, he was supposedly carrying so much baggage that it would take months for him to shed — if he was able to shed it at all.
Democrats paid lip service to the notion that, because of the economy, the election would be close. Privately, they had such low regard for Romney they didn’t see how he could win. Some Republicans were dubious, too.
As Romney struggled, Obama and his advisers were able to lie back and tend to business. They had a year to raise money, build another grass-roots army, hone a message and test attack ads as they watched Romney get carved up in a lengthy intraparty battle. They never doubted he would be their opponent but thought less of him the longer the GOP fight went on.
At the same time, they started organizing more than a year ago amid news reports that theirs would be the billion-dollar campaign, even though top advisers always dismissed that figure as media hype. They had a candidate who, despite facing stiff economic head winds and missing the magic of 2008, was battle-tested and sure-footed. They entered the general election with the conventional wisdom on their side.
Over the past 10 days, Obama and the Democrats got a taste of what Romney was going through during the winter and early spring. First there was the intra-party angst, fueled by questions about Clinton’s dependability after he seemed to undermine the Obama campaign’s attacks on Bain Capital by saying Romney had a sterling business record.
Then came the employment report that showed the economy had added just 69,000 jobs in May, which renewed concerns among Democrats about how competitive the election might actually be and about whether Obama had any new ideas for fixing things.
Then came another Clinton moment, when he had to walk back a comment saying that the Bush tax cuts, even those for the wealthiest Americans, might have to be extended temporarily because the economy was weak — a comment 180 degrees off from the position of the White House.
Then came the latest evidence that the Democrats were in serious danger of losing the fundraising wars, perhaps by hundreds of millions of dollars, in view of Romney’s success in May and the potential war chests of Republican super PACs raising money through unlimited, and often secret, donations.
Finally, and unexpectedly, the president committed a major gaffe when, in an unscripted moment and trying to defend himself from critics who accused him of blaming Europe for America’s economic problems, he said, “The private sector is doing fine.”
It helped only a little that Obama tried to take back the comment hours later. “It’s absolutely clear the economy is not doing fine,” he told reporters after a meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
Romney pounced on Obama’s comment, calling it “an extraordinary miscalculation” and adding, “Is he really that out of touch?”
Wasn’t that the Democrats’ line about Romney?
What’s also remarkable about the double stumble by Obama and Clinton is that they were both off script but in different ways. On Tuesday, the former president said the economy is so soft that it probably can’t afford the jolt of a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans and decided he had to recant to keep the White House happy. By Friday, the current president said the private sector is doing fine and then had to take it back because, well, because who believes it’s doing all that well?
Clinton ran into trouble when he suggested the economy was so fragile that it might be good to temporarily extend the Bush tax cuts for all taxpayers, including the wealthy. The former president later told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer he was sorry for the uproar he had created.
Clinton claimed he didn’t realize nothing had to be done about those tax cuts until the end of the year, an extraordinary comment by a politician who said not that long ago that he spends at least an hour a day studying the economy and whose ability to absorb and synthesize vast quantities of information still makes him the party’s best explainer in chief.
There was no good explanation from the president as to why he said what he said.
Democrats tried to scramble back late Friday by pointing to something Romney had said earlier in the day. “He wants another stimulus,” Romney said of Obama. “He wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message in Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”
A barrage of Democratic statements attacking Romney for attacking public servants followed. A Romney adviser later explained that the candidate was making the point that Obama’s only answer to the economy is more government and more public-sector workers, rather than policies that help private-sector job creators. That was a more elegant way of making the point than the language Romney used on the campaign trail.
What conclusions can be drawn from this week? One is that Obama and the Democrats ought not to underestimate the challenge they face from Romney and the economy. Obama’s team has weathered problems in the past — during his presidency and in the 2008 campaign. They pride themselves on not panicking when things aren’t going well or when their Democratic allies start to get nervous.
But there can be times when the luck runs out, or when indifference in the face of turbulence can prevent a campaign from examining whether something needs fixing. Obama’s team believes the attacks on Bain and on Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts also will have the desired effect. At the moment, Romney advisers have started to sense wobbliness in a campaign they have regarded as being supremely steady in the past.
There is a broader issue raised by the kind of week that just ended. The general election was billed as a potential debate between candidates from parties with starkly different worldviews on economic principles and the role of government. So far it has been a Twitter war. Is this the best voters can expect between now and November?