Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bounce back or fall further?

The race for the White House has tightened significantly, even in states like Pennsylvania. Republicans are trying to discern feces from shoe polish about the Libyan embassy attack, and who is responsible for it. Obama's missteps in retrospect are under the magnifying glass.

So tonight -- similar to one about 32 years ago, where the questions surrounding the incumbent president were similar and yet different -- is another inflection point in this election season.

The past two weeks seem to have borne that out. The slide in support for Obama appears to have leveled off in most of the polls (see here, here, here) right around their June low points. On Wall Street, this floor is called a support level — the point at which demand will prevent further price declines. If one looks at the long-term polling trend in the presidential race, there are two clear stories: Romney has been making gradual gains, and Obama has yet to fall behind enough to clearly prevent him from winning re-election.

Yes, that's where it stands this morning. Where it stands this evening is any partisan spinner's guess.

-- Michael Tomasky has some good advice for the president. Here's some of that.

Be a fighter for beliefs. I wrote this already, but it needs to be on this list. Obama must communicate that he wants to spend four more years fighting for the things he believes in and the people he represents.

Link Romney to Bush on policy. Absolutely crucial. This would sound something like: “Friends, let’s look over a little recent history. In 2001 President Bush came into office saying he was going to cut taxes and decrease regulations on Wall Street and the banks, and the economy would go gangbusters. Well, he did that, and we saw what happened—record deficits and the biggest economic crisis in 80 years.

“I’ve spent the last four years digging us out of this ditch. No help from the other side, mind you. But I have, and now we’re finally getting somewhere positive—the lowest unemployment rate in four years, the highest consumer confidence in five.

“And along comes my opponent here, and what’s he say? He wants to cut taxes and repeal regulations on Wall Street and the banks. Exactly the policies that created the crisis in the first place. Friends, I know your memories aren’t that short. They’re gonna take us right back to where we were.”

-- More Tomasky from this piece.

Obama needs to make Mitt unacceptable again. On his tax plan. On loopholes. On his vagueness. On the promise that a huge tax cut will spur the economy and generate more revenue, which we heard before (and please, dude, mention the name Bush). On Medicare. Why is that so damn hard? Everybody keeps saying that’s hard. It is not hard. Bill Clinton did it. Then everyone keeps saying that only Clinton has the chops to do things like that. Nonsense. Here: “Governor, as you well know, that $716 billion is savings, not a cut. If you spend it as you propose, you’re just spending the Medicare trust fund down faster. You’re making Medicare go broke faster. It’s like taking money out of your child’s college fund before he gets to college. That’s maybe why your running mate agrees with me on this one. And you must know this. So either you don’t get how it works or you’re intentionally misleading people.”

The thing about this language is that it's Obama-styled, forceful and direct without being loopy and confrontational. Except that loopy and confrontational worked pretty well for Mitt in the first debate, and really well for Joe Biden last week.

I just don't think Obama can or will go there. But he does have to punch, and he must counterpunch.

I remember attending a gathering of Democrats four years ago and being angered by the president's lack of a boxing strategy against the furious, blustering, fairly unhinged John McCain. (In a subsequent post about 2008's vice-presidential debate I explained this better -- scroll to the last). McCain lived up to his reputation in Debate II; we will have to see what Romney pulls out.

My guess is that Romney can't count on a cowed Obama again, distracted by his anniversary or whatever else. He's got to knock Obama off stride rather than hope for another stumble. The Republican is certainly capable of saying anything at all to reach that goal. Some points are likely to be scored on the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. That will be crass but predictable, so the president better have a good comeback.

But there is always something unexpected. A Sistah Souljah moment perhaps, from Mitt. Tomasky again, if that happens...

Obama has to be ready for that or another surprise. If it’s that one, I think Obama’s best response is probably not even to engage on the level of policy, but just to level him with something like, “Boy, you’ll just say anything now, won’t you? For a year and half, as long as he was seeking Republican votes, this guy went around and bragged out how much he was cutting taxes. And now that he wants everybody’s vote, suddenly he’s a tax raiser!” Et cetera.

In other words, I am conceding that that would be a smart thing for Romney to do, and that Obama’s policy answers to it are limited. As long as the people who despise tax increases would let him get away with this—and they would, for now—Obama would be a little boxed in. That’s where the mot juste comes in handy. Ding him for saying anything. Make the subject not what taxes the rich pay, but that Romney has no core.

So if Romney pulls a rabbit out of hat, Obama has to blast it with a shotgun.

But can he do that?

Whatever happens tonight, the "right-wing-leaners" will either fall more right or fall back toward undecided. And the stage will be set for the third and final debate, on October 22nd. Whatever happens tonight, that last debate will be even more interesting. The debate the following evening should be good, too.

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