The Urgency Imperative: Reagan vs. Carter Then, Romney vs. Obama Now

On Labor Day, 1980, Jimmy Carter’s presidential re-election campaign was ahead by 4 points. On November 4, 1980, the incumbent lost by 10 points.  As I learned firsthand back then, a lot can happen in two months.  

Today, as the RealClearPolitics average shows Mitt Romney down by less than a point in his White House bid, the challenger needs “the fierce urgency of now,” to borrow a phrase often used by Barack Obama in 2008--although he hasn’t used it much since. Ronald Reagan had that sense of urgency back in ’80, and it worked for him; we have yet to see whether Romney and Paul Ryan can make that message of urgency work for them.  

Amidst the message flubs in Tampa, there were, in fact, voices of urgency--but not enough of them. 

Urgency was heard, for example, in the voice of Condi Rice. She will be forever remembered for her role as a foreign policymaker during the Bush 43 presidency, and she defended the Bush record in her speech. Yet it was her message on education--and yes, hope--that was more important for the national future.  Describing an educational system still dominated by public-school monopolies, condemning children to lousy schools and soaking taxpayers at the same time, she said that it shouldn’t matter what zip code you live in. That is, a child’s destiny should not be determined by the bad luck of geography. And so, Rice added, “we need to give parents greater choice, particularly poor parents whose kids, very often minorities, are trapped in failing neighborhood schools. This is the civil rights issue of our day.” Amen to that. True education reform is the civil rights issue of our day, and the Obama administration is on the wrong side.  

It’s worth remembering that the phrase “the fierce urgency of now” was part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s epochal “I have a dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.  That was the speech that inspired America to new exertions on behalf of equal opportunity.  A half-century later, if Republicans could consistently muster the same sort of moral energy, they would be a better party--and this would be a better country.  A GOP that is routinely depicted as the “party of no” could confound its stereotype by saying “yes” to expanded educational opportunity,--especially as new imagination, coupled with new technology, can now bring world-class education to every willing student.   

Another urgent voice was Chris Christie’s.  The New Jersey governor’s keynote address was widely panned by political chatterers, but his reformist message on education--and his track record to match--is a tonic to ordinary Americans. Christie was combative, but not mean-spirited--except, perhaps, to cancerous public employee unions.   

Christie bluntly addressed the great cynicism and alienation afflicting the country; his solution was to speak “hard truths,” including truths about entitlements, pointing toward stern but just solutions. It was, indeed, refreshing to hear a politician say that “the people have no patience for any other way anymore.” As Christie declared, “It takes leadership that you don’t get from reading a poll.  You see, Mr. President, real leaders do not follow polls.  Real leaders change polls.”  (As a professional pollster for 40 years, I have argued that all my life.) I was not surprised that Christie’s speech was criticized by much of the political class--one blogger for the Washington Post, described it as a “bomb”--because, well, the political class can never really process anything that happens outside of its own mental box. They could not understand Christie because they could not hear him. They couldn’t grasp the words that Christie was speaking to an audience way beyond the Beltway and its bloviators.  

The next night, Paul Ryan delivered a strong speech; if he did not hit the same high notes as Sarah Palin four years ago, he still managed to introduce himself to the nation as an appealing figure, despite the Obama campaign/MSM’s best efforts to demonize him. Ryan pledged to repeal Obamacare, of course, and that plays very well in the polls. Indeed, consistently through the convention, it was the Obamacare-repeal message that most electrified the audience. 

Yet as I argued in July, Republicans would have been better off focusing their fire more narrowly, on the unpopular and deceitful “Obamatax” provisions, as opposed to the overall healthcare bill.  That narrowing might seem like a nuance, but politics depends on nuances, also known as precision. After all, swing voters are happy enough with some provisions of Obamacare, concerning, for example, coverage of young people and those with pre-existing conditions.  What they don’t like--and thus need to be reminded of--are the tax increases and the deception embedded in the bill. Please, please, please, Medicare is not the issue--Obamacare is the winning issue.

Interestingly, in three days of speechifying, Ryan delivered one of the few memorable concrete images: “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.” The image of a young adult stuck and stagnating at home goes against the tenet of our basic civil religion--that every generation will be better off than the one before it. And this was a powerful unifying thread in Tampa--Romney referred to it at least three times. If the GOP make this the anvil of their argument over the next two months, they will flatten the Obama campaign.   

And as an aside, we might ask: Given the largeness of the English language, why were other speakers failed to come up with memorable word-pictures?  As a group, speechwriters should spend more time brushing up on their Shakespeare and less time channeling spin-doctors and other self-declared “communications” experts.  

Yet at the same time, a fuller awareness of the human experience could also inform policy, as well as the prose that spells it out. In his speech, Ryan spoke of a Congress in which the experts “take out the heavy books and the wall charts about Medicare.” And yet, Ryan continued, when he thinks of Medicare, “My thoughts go back to a house on Garfield Street in Janesville. My wonderful grandma, Janet, had Alzheimer’s and she moved in with mom and me. Though she felt lost at times, we did all the little things that made her feel loved.” It was a bittersweet snapshot of the same eldercare challenges experienced by millions of families across America. And since the rap on Ryan is that he is one of those who sees policy through numbers and charts, it was a helpful filling out of his own portrait.  

Still, Ryan could have helped himself even more if he had gone further, describing how a Romney-Ryan administration might take bold action to actually combat Alzheimer’s, as opposed to simply finance its dreary ravages in a new way.  This distinction is more than a debate over policy; it speaks to winning vision. A victorious presidential campaign must provide a genuine  vision for the future--using its imagination. The issue of Alzheimer’s is an issue of imagination, just as the space race in the 60s was an issue of imagination.  In our time, America is waiting for an effective plan for dealing with the fear that haunts every family in the country--the fear of a costly and painful decline stretched over decades.That is why Alzheimer’s is a winning issue, because it hits Americans where they live.  

As for Romney’s acceptance speech, he was smart to embrace a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, contrasting 2008 to today. As Romney said: 

Many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago. Hope and Change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he's President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.

Such a wistful tone--echoing Ryan’s “fading Obama posters” image--is the potentially winning message for Republicans. Why?  Because for all the Republican enthusiasm for vindicating long-cherished conservative and libertarian ideals, the real battle of 2012 is in the middle. That is, the 10 percent or so of the electorate that is truly subject to changing its mind, election to election. And just four years ago, most of that middle decile went to Obama, who beat John McCain by more than seven points.   

So the Republican challenge today is to convince ’08 Obama voters that it’s okay to switch their vote to Romney in ’12. Such convincing can’t be done with a blunderbuss attack on everything Democratic--that is, trying to force voters to admit that they made a huge mistake four years ago.     Instead, the message has to be that voting for Obama, then, was perfectly understandable. But now, here we are, sadder and wiser, as it’s obvious to any fair-minded viewer that the next four years of Obama would be no better than the last four years.  

And so, once again, it’s time for a change.  This is the carefully crafted argument--using only former Obama voters, Democrats and independents all, to make the anti-Obama case--that David Bossie and Steve Bannon advance in their new documentary movie, “The Hope and the Change.” 

More than three decades ago, Ronald Reagan understood the power of a true hope-and-change message as he took on my old boss, Jimmy Carter. In 1980, Reagan, for most of his life a Democrat, didn’t spend his campaign attacking the Democratic Party as a whole; instead, he focused on Carter and the Democratic Party’s post-60s liberalism.  Indeed, Reagan was perfectly content to embrace a Democratic icon of the early 60s, John F. Kennedy. JFK’s tax-rate-cut plan was the model, after all, for Reaganomics. By contrast, it was Carter and the Democrats who allowed themselves to get lost in fighting battles over the nuances of policies and the small-bore minutiae of Reagan’s sweeping tax-cut proposal. In 1980, the country wanted change, not debate points.  

Indeed, in the 1980 presidential campaign, once Reagan was able to neutralize the “risk issue”--that is, the fear that he was a trigger-happy cowboy--as he did during the single Carter-Reagan debate. exactly one week before the election, it became a certainty that Reagan the change-agent would win. Reagan’s message of growth, optimism, and every generation doing better--that was the message that stole my party’s lunch. 

Growth always trumps austerity. During the Tampa convention, Wall Street Journal editorial put it well: 

Inside the GOP's Tampa convention hall this week, one prominent feature is a debt clock ticking toward $16 trillion. With due respect to that horrifying number, it's the wrong figure to watch. What Mitt Romney and the GOP need above all is a growth clock and a persuasive case for economic revival.

The Reaganites had it right: Rapid economic growth causes the deficit and debt to fall, not the other way around.

Without a sustained recovery in national output to 3% growth or more and without putting millions more Americans back to work, there is no politically feasible spending reduction or tax increase that could balance the budget even if Ron Paul ran Congress.

That’s what Romney and Ryan need most: “a persuasive case for economic revival,” as made by Reagan and before him, by Jack Kennedy. And before Kennedy, it was made by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Indeed, it was made after Reagan by another Democrat, Bill Clinton.  

Successful Democrats believe that it’s possible--indeed, desirable--to have a compassionate government and a growing economy.   And so it will be interesting to see, in Charlotte, the contrast between Bill Clinton, the champion of moderate pro-growth policies, and Obama, the champion of hard-left redistributionism.  For his sake, Obama had better wake up to that message--although it’s not likely that he will. 

Yet even so, the challengers have to improve their game. As we have seen, the biggest failing of Tampa was that Romney and Ryan failed to fully and forcefully articulate that sense of urgency--the foreboding, among the general public, that winter is coming, combined, of course, with a plan for avoiding that winter.  

Thus the super-issue this year is the economy. And so if Republicans want to win, they need to get past longer-term issues, such as Medicare, and back onto the big prize of 2012--economic growth and a positive and transformative vision for the future. 

Fifty years ago, JFK declared that it was time to “get the country moving again.” He won. Thirty years ago, Reagan made the same argument. He won, too.  

And now this newest R-Team has the same opportunity, although they have yet to grasp it fully. Thus this election sits on a knife edge. 


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