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Is It 2004 All Over Again?

Posted March 8, 2012, 7:00 p.m.

Writing recently about the Republican Party presidential primaries, I spoke about how unique this cycle was in relation to other recent primary battles. It remains incredibly volatile, as the Real Clear Politics poll averages show, but at this point it is pretty safe to say that former-Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) will be victorious. Things are settling down, and now it’s really more a matter of how long it’ll be before Romney can be declared the presumptive nominee.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as the Romney campaign did when it announced that it would take an ‘act of God’ for him to lose the nomination, but it is true that there is no plausible alternative still available—for better or worse. None have survived the pro-Romney attacks of the main-stream media, which have taken the form of a constant barrage of out-of-context quotes, unverified innuendo, and largely baseless accusation against each non-Romney who rises in the polls. Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) is the most recent victim, having been ripped to shreds for little reason other than the fact that he (like myself) is a faithful Catholic who actually believes what the Church teaches in matters of faith and morality. God forbid. Apparently only un-faithful Catholics are eligible for elective office these days.

Before Santorum, former Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th), former Governor Rick Perry (R-TX), and Herman Cain (R) had all been subjected to a similar media crusade—though admittedly, at times, with accusations and smears that had more merit than those against Santorum. Only Representative Ron Paul (R-TX 14th) has been spared this inexplicable and concerted media smearing; he has been subjected to a full-on media blackout instead.

I continue to lament the transparent pro-Romney bias of the major media, which has been orchestrated by traditionally liberal and conservative outlets alike. Politics does, indeed, make for strange bedfellows. Conservative outlets seem to see Romney as the ordained successor of Republicanism and have fallen in-line behind the party establishment in supporting him. Liberal outlets, on the other hand, seem to see him as the least threatening candidate, either because they don’t think he can beat President Barack Obama (D) or because they want to ensure at least a ‘moderate’ candidate in the White House if Obama loses. I’m still not sure which to believe, but whatever the case it is clear that most major media outlets have abandoned even the semblance of impartiality and professionalism.

Regardless, as I have contemplated where we stand in the 2012 presidential election cycle, I have begun to see more and more parallels to one recent election cycle: 2004.

Of course the party affiliations are all reversed. In 2004, President George W. Bush (R) had completed his first term and was going into a reelection battle with poor approval ratings. The public had begun turning solidly against the War in Iraq (despite their earlier support), and Bush himself had proved to be a polarizing figure who had alienated the opposition party and had failed to keep hardly any of his campaign promises. The one major promise from the 2000 election that he had kept, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind education reform law he had crafted with Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), turned out to be fairly unpopular as well. The only thing Bush had going for him was a strong suite of anti-terror policies which, despite occasional controversies, had proved effective and remained moderately popular.

In 2012, we see many parallels. Obama, coming up on the end of his first term, is also entering a reelection battle with poor approval ratings. The public has turned solidly against many of his domestic and economic policies, particularly the tripling (or worse) of the Bush deficits, the ineffective ‘stimulus’ plans that don’t seem to be accomplishing anything, and various assaults on civil liberties. Obama himself has also proved to be a polarizing figure who has alienated the opposition party and has failed to keep hardly any of his campaign promises. The one major promise he has kept from the 2008 campaign, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act health care reform law, remains reliably unpopular. Again, the only thing he really has going for him is that his anti-terror and foreign policies—largely unchanged from those of his predecessor—also remain effective and moderately popular.

In 2004, the White House was the Democratic Party’s for the taking. All they had to do was run a relatively inoffensive candidate. Instead, they nominated Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Kerry was probably a good choice, given the alternatives: swarthy Senator John Edwards (D-NC), hyper-liberal (and hyper-active) former Governor Howard Dean (D-VT), and the enigmatic General Wesley Clark (D). But being nominally better than the alternatives doesn’t necessarily make for a successful candidacy. Kerry quickly proved incapable of connecting with the voters. His upper-class New England background meant that he had little understanding of the issues facing most Americans, and his ‘for it before I was against it’ flip-flopping didn’t endear him to anybody who respects honest convictions over political expediency. In a year that should have been easy-pickings for the Democrats, Bush won reelection 286-251 in the electoral college (50.7-48.3 percent in the popular vote).

Again, 2012 looks very similar. The White House should be the Republican Party’s for the taking, as long as they run a relatively inoffensive candidate. And although Romney seems like he might be a good choice given the alternatives, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will be successful in November. Romney, like Kerry, is likely to have a hard time connecting with the voters. He is also of an upper-class New England background, and he is also known for Kerry-style ‘for it before I was against it’ flip-flopping. There is a good chance that Romney in 2012 will do for the Republicans what Kerry did in 2004 for the Democrats.

Would I bet on it? No. For all the similarities, there are a few key differences worth noting.

In 2004, the Sepetmber 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terror attacks were still quite fresh in our minds. Matters of national security, anti-terror policy, and foreign policy were paramount in the voters’ minds. On these issues, Kerry came across as an idealistic and unrealistic pollyanna compared to Bush, which potentially lost him as much as five percent of the electorate—enough to turn the election. But these issues were distant secondaries to the economy in 2008, and remain so in 2012. Obama has done well in the national security area, and we can expect his anti-terror successes to feature prominently in his campaigning, but the voters know that Obama (to his credit) has essentially stuck with Republican policy positions in these areas. As such, this will not significantly differentiate him from his opponent. It likely won’t have any impact at all, neither helping or hurting him.

The economy, and government spending, is the foremost issue this time around. Obama was very successful in 2008 at claiming that he would put us on a different path than the Keynesian spending and bailout policies Bush had put in place in the waning days of his administration, but many of those who voted for him on this basis were soon betrayed. Obama accelerated the same basic flawed policies, running up more government debt in his first term than Bush ran up in two and creating a broad new unconstitutional health care entitlement. In other words, he took a very bad situation (for which I was as critical of Bush as anybody else) and made it much, much worse. This will work in Romney’s favor, although not as much as it might have otherwise since Romney has traditionally been a ‘big government’ Republican in the Bush style on spending issues. It is inexplicable that, when the public is more receptive than ever to fiscally conservative policies, the Republican Party is instead running a center-left fiscal moderate.

The last issue that makes this year different from 2004 is that of civil liberties. There was a fair amount of talk about civil liberties in 2004, mostly surrounding the Patriot Act and other anti-terror laws, but the voters largely didn’t buy it since the only verified ‘victims’ of those laws were foreign war criminals and terrorists who have no standing in the U.S. legal system (or under the Geneva Conventions) anyway. But the erosion of civil liberties under Obama is very real, with whole-sale government intrusions into First Amendment free speech and free press rights, First Amendment religious free exercise rights, Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches and seizures, Tenth Amendment limits on government authority, and more.

This time, the victims are not imaginary. We see them. We know them. Heck, the over-twenty-percent of U.S. citizens who are Catholic are them. Other victims include the Internet companies and activists who have been subjected to unconstitutional government take downs of web sites, and travelers who are subjected to nude photography or an invasive pat-down in return for nothing more than wanting to get on a plane. Civil libertarians will be a bigger driver of votes this time around, since the threats against our rights are much more concrete than they have ever been before. This can potentially work in Romney’s favor, but only if he takes a strong, positive position on these and other civil liberties.

It is far too early for me to make a prediction about who will win in November (or, for that matter, for me to make my official endorsements). But one thing is certain: it’s shaping up to be an interesting race.

Scott Bradford has been building web sites and using them to say what he thinks since 1995, which tended to get him in trouble with power-tripping assistant principals at the time. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University, but has spent most of his career (so far) working on public- and private-sector web sites. He is not a member of any political party, and brands himself an ‘independent constitutional conservative.’ In addition to holding down a day job and blogging about challenging subjects like politics, religion, and technology, Scott is also a devout Catholic, gun-owner, bike rider, and music lover with a wife, two cats, and a dog.