The Face of Things to Come

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

Campaign Rhetoric

The campaign contour is pretty clear: The Obama reelection team will not make the case for the advantages and popularity of Obamacare, for the Chuian advantages of $4-a-gallon gas, for the dynamism of a 1.7 percent GDP growth rate, for the stimulatory effects of adding $5 trillion in new debt, or for why 8 percent unemployment does not qualify under the old rubric of a “jobless recovery.” Instead we are going to see a) mostly the spike-the-football sloganeering about Osama bin Laden and adherence to the Bush-Petraeus timetable in leaving Iraq, b) the supposed racism (Trayvon Martin-style), sexism (“war on women”) and homophobia of the Right, and c) personal attacks on Romney’s past.

But given that of almost all politicians, left and right, on the national scene, Romney is about the most squeaky clean (indeed, perhaps the squeakiest in a generation of candidates), the fare is going to be pretty paltry — mostly Mormon boilerplate and silly stuff like the Washington Post high-school bullying story that already is starting to unwind or fade.

The notable thing about these surrogate attacks is not just that they are trivial, beneath us, and distractions from a real debate over what to do about debt, joblessness, and the economy, but how quickly they are matched and trumped in equally trivial style. In the women wars, Sandra Fluke was rebutted by the unapologetic misogynist Bill Maher’s $1-million-dollar-gift to the Obama campaign; in the doggy wars, poor Seamus in his windy car-top cage was trumped by Obama’s cynophagia, and now Romney the prep-school purported hair-cutter is seen and raised in Na-na na-na na-na style with Obama the Hawaii preppie stoner, who likewise had been insensitive early in his school days, in his case by pushing a middle-school girl. In other words, the Romney support group is not, in high-minded McCain fashion, going to avoid the silly, trivial, and irrelevant, as was true in 2008. And given that Obama’s past has never really been vetted, at some point I think these Washington Post-like stories will cease, given the inevitable trump to follow. In other words, I don’t think we are going to be reading stories about anything like Romney getting a B- in math in college, or not telling us that on his released medical report that he might have had asthma, or that as a Bain CEO he didn’t publish an annual report, and for obvious reasons . . .

Will 2012 Be Nasty? Of Course!

The central issue of the campaign — granted, Obama inherited a weak economy, but then made it far worse — is at an impasse: Obama keeps pleading that “Bush did it” and a Romney would have made it even worse than he did. So we are left with a surreal debate in which 1.7 percent GDP growth, 8.1 percent unemployment, a $1 trillion deficit, and $5 trillion in new debt — all the indicators of abject failure that Democrats used to call all sorts of things like “a jobless recovery” and “it’s the economy stupid” — are now offered up as an encouraging improvement from where we were in September 2008.

The result is that all sorts of trivia will come up, as much as handlers insist they are irrelevant, and I don’t think anything is going to be off the table for a variety of reasons. The Obama campaign, as it demagogues the Bain Capital connection, can always (and correctly) note that they are doing nothing different from what conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry did during the primary, often to some effect. And if we are going to go back 50 years to Romney’s school days and Ann Romney’s horse-riding, then surely strange artifacts like Obama’s college transcripts, inter alia, are fair game — especially because all during the 2008 campaign and the first years of his presidency, Obama played on the image of a “sky-high IQ,” and in the words of one presidential historian was the smartest person ever to assume the presidency. To serially cite innate talent and erudition only invites proof of the same. Had the public known that Obama was, perhaps, a C+/B- student, then all the talk of his dazzling brilliance would have long ago been suspect. And the issue is relevant when Obama claims he did not have Romney’s silver spoon — if he did have some sort of precious metal utensil to parlay a dismal prep school and undergraduate college record into admission to Harvard Law.

But in a larger sense, 2012 is going to be nasty largely because the all too human Obama of today is not the mystical Obama of yesterday: 1) He will not have a sizable financial edge this time around to flood the media; 2) he has four years of a record that the public is not impressed with; 3) he has lost the glitz that resulted in enormous turnout among young people; 4) there will not be high-profile independents and conservatives who loudly announce that they are going to jump over to Obama; 5) he has decided to govern and run from the left, not the 2008 center; 6) and at times, he may well run behind in the polls. The result is that Obama himself will often go negative and will not be able to plead that Romney should emulate the restraint of John McCain — as if George H. W. Bush in 1992 could have urged Bill Clinton to follow the more noble high-minded Dukakis campaign of 1988.

What Will We Call 2011 or 2012?

Summing up a yearly economy depends a lot on the media. The three most recent setbacks for the Republicans were perhaps the years 1992, 2006, and 2008. In 1992 — the dismal year of “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” the “worst recession since the Great Depression,” and the Bush I defeat, to take a few examples — the unemployment rate ended at 7.5 percent, the GDP growth rate was 3.4 percent, the budget deficit was $290 billion (unadjusted dollars), and gas averaged $1.13 a gallon (unadjusted dollars). In 2006, the year of the Republican “shellacking,” and general unhappiness over Iraq and the economy, the unemployment rate was 4.5 percent, the GDP growth rate was 3.5 percent, the federal budget deficit was $248 billion (unadjusted), and gas was $2.59 a gallon (unadjusted). In 2008, the last full year of the Bush presidency, marked by the Wall Street meltdown of mid-September, the unemployment rate for the year ended at 5.8 percent, the 2008 GDP growth rate, including the post-September months, was 1.1 percent, the budget deficit ended at $438 billion (unadjusted), and gas averaged for the year was $3.31 a gallon (unadjusted).

Now the quarterly unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, the GDP growth rate is at 1.7 percent, the deficit in 2011 was $1.3 trillion, and average gas prices last week, after a slide, were $3.83 per gallon. There are all sorts of bad months, recessions, meltdowns, etc. that warp these yearly figures, but my point is only one of perception: When the economy goes south, sometimes we hear the words “worst,” “Great Depression,” “jobless recovery,” and at other times of stagnation we don’t. If in 1992, 2006, and 2008 the issues were poor Republican stewardship of the economy, what will they be in 2012?

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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