Mitt Romney is about as close to defeating President Barack Obama as any Republican could have hoped to be. The polls--if you believe them--show him slightly or significantly behind, but within striking distance. The challenge he faces is unique: he is acting, and is being treated as, the incumbent rather than the insurgent. In effect, "President" Romney has been in office since mid-August, with none of the power but all of the responsibility.
It was President Romney, not Obama, who set aside time to visit victims of Hurricane Isaac. It was President Romney, not Obama, who reacted swiftly to the attacks on our embassies by standing up for American freedom. It was President Romney, not Obama, who took on the entitlements crisis head-on by adopting many of Paul Ryan’s ideas. It was President Romney, not Obama, who laid out a practical plan for the housing crisis.
The media have also treated Romney as the incumbent, pouncing on every word and gesture, seizing on every mistake and inventing errors where none exist. Romney’s so-called “gaffes” have one thing in common: they are all statements of fact. He is being held to a presidential standard--for presidents should know better than to tell all--while Obama’s outright lies to the nation (on Libya, the debt, etc.) are ignored by the media.
Obama’s failures as the actual incumbent are also passed over--or spun into positives. We reached 2,000 dead in Afghanistan? Hey, Obama “ended the war.” Unemployment still above 8 percent? Oh, that jobs report was “better than expected.” We were attacked by Al Qaeda on 9/11, and Obama lied about it? Don’t worry, “bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” Growth down to 1.3%? Say--“No one could have done it better.”
That last canard came to us courtesy of former President Bill Clinton, who returned to the political scene to disown his own political legacy after Obama had spent the past four years destroying it, and his entire political career fighting it. The expansion of the welfare state, the proliferation of opaque regulations, and the explosion of debt were all things Clinton resisted. No longer--not when 2016 may be a new opportunity for Hillary.
Romney is also the incumbent in a cultural sense--he is the old, rich, white guy that 45 years of higher education and Hollywood have inveighed against. He has a stake in the system and values that two successive generations of elites have been taught to hate. And so an election that ought to have been a referendum on Obama, and which Obama hoped to turn into a choice between him and Romney, is now a referendum on Romney alone.
The cost of losing is clear, or ought to be. The nation will face a fiscal cliff on January 1, and Obama’s plan if he wins is to force tax hikes that may cover some of the gap in the short term but will hurt everyone in the long term through slow economic growth. A loss for Romney means Obamacare is forever--though it has already cost American families $3000 instead of the $2500 savings on health insurance premiums Obama promised.
A Romney loss also means America will have accepted persistent high unemployment and slow growth as the new normal, creating a lost generation and destroying both our entitlement system and our future prosperity. It means Israel will likely be forced to go to war, and likely on its own, against Iran. It means the Supreme Court will be liberal, for at least a generation, as the far-left fulfills its wish to transform our “living Constitution.”
Romney’s campaign has endured much criticism from the party establishment that told conservatives he was the only candidate who could win. In fact, the criticism just reveals how hapless the establishment is without its conservative base. That base has suffered losses--the death of Andrew Breitbart, the division of the Tea Party, the exile of Glenn Beck, the slander of Sarah Palin. And yet it is still fighting, not criticizing or complaining.
This election could be 1980--or it could be 1936, when Roosevelt’s re-election brought the deepening of the Depression and a court-packing controversy that changed America forever. Americans have made poor choices even with everything at stake--just look at California, which rejected a pro-choice woman in 2010 to bring back the same guy who created the state’s financial mess to begin with. But we also get it right, once in a while.
In 1936, the major polls--which predicted a win for Republican Alf Landon--were wrong. They may be wrong again in 2012--and no one who has covered this race can honestly say there is more enthusiasm for Obama than there was in 2008. But Romney cannot think about the polls. He is, in every way but the oath alone, President Romney already, for better or for worse. So he has to do what an incumbent does: lead, and be strong.