I can’t quite decide how silly it is to suggest that the presidential election will either be a “referendum” on President Obama’s first term or a “choice” between two competing visions of what the national government should try to do over the next four years.
The smart analysts are writing about this question, but there’s a tendency for them to imply that it has to be one (referendum, which they mostly seem to think is bad for Obama, or choice, which they think could be more troublesome for Mitt Romney).
For the record, when I interviewed Jeff Blodgett, Obama’s Minnesota state director, last week, I asked him the “choice” or “referendum” question and he opted for “choice.”
It seems reasonable to me that it’s bound to have elements of both.
Obama has an actual White House record. It’s possible (even necessary) to argue about which of the things he has done have worked and which not, plus how much of the continuing poor economy can be attributed to his policies and how much is hangover from the free-fall he inherited. And then there are really big things that will eventually be part of his record (Obamacare, for one big example, and the winding down of the two wars) that the public hasn’t seen fully implemented yet.
Romney, whose one term in public office ended six years ago, really doesn’t have much of a record and has shifted away from many of the positions he took as a Massachusetts politician. His experience leading the Olympic games and Bain Capital are something (for both sides) to talk about, but don’t really tell voters much about how he would function as president.
On the other hand, Romney and Obama seem to have settled on roughly opposite positions on almost every public policy issue currently available. And the primary campaign forced Romney to swing further right than he might have liked.
Anyway, the smart set is debating the “referendum” or “choice” frames this week. The conventional wisdom is that Romney does better with a referendum and Obama does better with a choice. Here’s Stu Rothenberg’s version, in which he suggests that while Romney’s political team wants to get back to a referendum frame, the conservative ideologues think they can’t lose with a choice. Rothenberg warns them that they’ve been drinking the righty Kool-Aid. Here’s a chunk of that:
Conservatives invariably call for a ‘choice’ election because they find the Obama vision so appalling that they assume everyone will agree with that assessment. (Ideologues of both the left and the right generally seem to assume that they will be clear winners in the ‘vision’ and ‘values’ debate.)…
In fact, Republicans — and Romney in particular — ought to be very careful about falling into the trap of making the 2012 elections a choice of grand visions.
First, while the most conservative of Republicans can’t seem to think of a thing (other than defense) that government should do, most voters have a decidedly more mixed view of government.
Yes, most voters seem to agree, government spends and taxes too much, is inefficient and interferes too much in private decisions, but those same voters also look to government for student loans, highway spending, Medicare, retirement benefits, clean air and clean water programs and innumerable other federal programs.
Rothenberg notes, of course, that Ronald Reagan framed his 1980 challenge to incumbent Jimmy Carter around the question “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” And I guess you’d have to say it worked. But would it have worked if Carter had sent one more helicopter on that rescue mission and the troops had succeeded in getting the U.S. hostages out of Iran?