I have had a lot of pent up thoughts and energy in regards to the presidential election and so before the world moves on to things like the CIA sex scandal, the closing of Hostess (Save the Pies!) and the Mayan Apocalypse, I am going to delve into the presidential election one last time.
One of the things that struck me most about the election occurred about 2 weeks prior to Election Day. At that point, everyone’s favorite prognosticator, Nate Silver, tweeted that after about 5 months of following the polls and all of the data, the race was exactly the same as it had been when it all started. After an endless stream of attack ads, babies kissed, miles flown in the air, 2 conventions, 4 debates, 24 Sunday mornings with hours of television programming filled with pundits, candidates and surrogates blowing hot air, essentially we were back where we started. Oh yeah, and billions of dollars raised by both campaigns, not to mention the super PAC’s as well as the extra money necessary to pay for the giant conventions. In theory, none of that made any difference.
Now one could come back and say that not all of that time and money went towards advertisements alone. There was also money spent on campaign infrastructure and “Get Out The Vote” efforts and clearly one team spent their money more wisely than the other. But in the end, it would appear that much of the blood, sweat and tears was spent rather fruitlessly.
To me, the whole election swung on a small handful of moments. How little moments and the decisions you make in those moments is a topic that I find interesting and have written about before, so I figured I would dip into the well one more time and look at the four moments leading up to the election that I feel were the turning points.
“Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”
Do you think either President Obama or Governor Romney suspected that their actions mere days into the term of the 44th President would have been so decisive for an election 4 years in the future that virtually no one was even thinking about? Probably not and that is what makes this moment so fascinating for me. For more than any moment after the decision to bailout Ford and GM, it is this moment that solidified the outcome of the 2012 election.
I have never been President of the United States, but I would have to imagine that while some decisions are made with one eye on future elections and what the history books will say about you, most are made focusing on the moment. I don’t think that President Obama decided to bailout the automakers the the express intent of getting himself reelected in 4 years. He hadn’t even been sworn in as president yet! My guess is he was thinking that the economy is already dire and to let a large leg of the American economy crumble would make things infinitely worse. And while a terrible economy would be in general a bad thing for the reelection of an incumbent, I would think that at such an early time in his term, Barack Obama would have thought that this would not be the only important move he would make during his term with regards to the economy.
In the same regard, I can’t imagine that Mitt Romney felt a twinge of nervousness at all about the starkness of the headline leading his OpEd piece in the New York Times exactly 4 years ago. In fact, having been aced out of the Republican nomination that he so fervently desired just a few months prior, I am sure that he loved the headline. Having not been seen as conservative enough, this was going to be Governor Romney’s first salvo in the Republican primaries of 2012, and it probably served its purpose of solidifying his conservative bona fides.
The problem was that is also sealed his tomb for the 2012 election. Article upon article has already been written about Ohio and how the automaker bailout was a huge life preserver for its economy. 1 in 8 jobs in the state were somehow connected to the auto industry. Add in the presence of the auto industry in many other parts of the upper Midwest and its effects to bolster their economies as well and you can see that the bricks of President Obama’s “electoral firewall” were already being planted in Michigan and Ohio back in 2008.
Now some have argued that what Mitt Romney was really calling for is not that much different than what the President did. And they may be right. The problem is that to explain how they are similar takes too much time, effort and more importantly, too many words. In this hyperactive news cycle where everything boils down to a sound bite, a headline like “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” is powerful enough to come back to bite you, no matter how much it helped you initially.
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?
In light of the contentious place that “Obamacare” held in the election, I am surprised that this moment did not get played up further in the aftermath of President Obama’s reelection. On September 27, 2011, the President rolled the dice and decided to petition the Supreme Court to hear the case of Florida v. United States Department of Health and Human Resources, the most significant of the multiple cases that challenged the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
This was a gamble, because he did not have to do this. He could have asked that the 11th Circuit Court rehear the entire trial because part of that court’s initial decision (to strike down the ACA) was overturned on appeal. While the ultimate destiny of the ACA’s constitutionality was always going to be decided by the United States Supreme Court, what was not set in stone was when this would happen. If the Obama Administration has decided to have the 11th Circuit Court rehear the case, it would have pushed the date with Supreme Court past the election. But instead, President Obama pushed all of his chips into the center of the table.
On June 28th, 2012, President Obama hit the jackpot when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the the individual mandate of the ACA. He had been vindicated, but he could have just as easily been wholly embarrassed. The signature action of his entire first term, thrown out with the trash. After three and a half years in office, President Obama would have had very little to hang his hat on. While Governor Romney’s argument that the President spent too much time on superfluous things like the ACA during his first term instead of fixing the economy had gained some traction during the Fall campaign, it was easily beaten back with President Obama and his team being able to tout the benefits of the ACA (such as no more liability caps, inability to get kicked off of insurance because of pre-existing conditions, children can stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26). This was effective because while the ACA as a whole was (and still is to some degree) unpopular, individual aspects of it are very popular with people on both sides of the electorate.
I would have to suspect that at the time, President Obama knew that he was gambling his entire second term on this decision. Maybe there were other things that went into this decision (such as the fact that maybe having the fate of Obamacare decided would be much less of a drag on the conversation, win or lose), but I would love to know more about the decision-making process that went into this huge moment. (Maybe it will show up in Game Change 2: ORCA’s Revenge!).
The Empty Chair
In retrospect, it seems that Governor Romney was asking for it. He and his team were so tight-laced and by the book that Mitt Romney wouldn’t do morning talk shows like The View, didn’t participate in the Nickelodeon “Kids Pick the President” event and didn’t even participate in US Weekly‘s Award-Winning (okay I made that up) 25 Things You Didn’t Know About Me segment. It seemed that everything was checked, rechecked and checked again. Except for a 11 minute segment with Clint Eastwood and an empty chair.
Apparently, no one had talked with Mr. Eastwood ahead of time what he was going to do with his slot at the convention. They were content to just let him wing it like he wanted to do. While we could easily debate whether this segment was pure genius or pure insanity, the fact is that it was the most memorable moment of the night and probably the entire convention. The problem? Mitt Romney also spoke that night. The one night that was supposed to be his coming out party and his introduction to the world, unfiltered by attack ads and slickly filmed commercials. And he was upstaged by an empty chair. While it led to some interesting posts on Twitter, it certainly didn’t help undecided voters understand Mitt Romney any better. Hard to believe that the 11 minutes that they let Clint be Clint were enough to reshape the election.
No Drama Obama
Throughout the 2008 campaign, President Obama gained the “No Drama” nickname by always being cool under pressure and never seeming too high with the highs or too low with the lows. He kept calm and kept moving forward. I distinctly remember any of number of times when his campaign in the primaries seemed on the verge of crashing and burning. Losing in New Hampshire to let Hilary Clinton back into the race, the “Clinging to Guns and Religion” comments, the “Lipstick on a Pig” comments, his perceived inability to “seal the deal” which led to Hilary stubbornly sticking around, Reverend Wright, Tony Rezko, just to name a few.
But at every juncture, President Obama seemed to have a way of turning things around right when things were darkest. During his campaign in 2012, there were very few dark moments. In fact for much of the summer the campaigns were steadfastly immobile with the numbers changing very little. Governor Romney got very little bump coming out of his convention while President Obama started riding the tidal wave started by President Clinton the night before. Then came the fateful night in Denver.
The President was underprepared and it showed. He was uninspiring, off-point and ceding ground to Governor Romney at seemingly every turn. Things seemed very bad at the end of the night. Many were harkening back to the 1980 Presidential Debate when Ronald Reagan used to moment to propel past Jimmy Carter and on to the White House. It could have been the beginning of the end for President Obama. But instead, he and his team hit the ground running, got reinvigorated and reengaged and started to eat away at Mitt Romney’s post-debate bounce. By the time it was all said and done, the polls had not only erased the post-debate bounce but has started equalling and in some cases surpassing the levels that the President was seeing after his Charlotte convention. No Drama Obama strikes again.
While the history books are filled with momentous occasions and big moments, in the end the story of life and mankind is really filled up with seemingly small and innocuous moments. The “inconsequential” decision to not give up and keep fighting that day. It’s just 10 minutes, what could go wrong? Life is a parade of small moments, some of which turn into big moments. The key question is, how can you tell which is which?