Talk to just about any Democratic strategist these days, and the first or third thing mentioned is the wonderfulness of having an opponent again. Back in 2010, of course, Democrats tried for months to pretend they were running against something — John Boehner, George Bush’s legacy, Slurpees — but the public never bought it. That election was a referendum on President Obama’s first two years, and President Obama lost big. But now, there are all these people running around putting a face to the Republican party: Newt Gingrich with his Tiffany credit line, Paul Ryan with his political wonk poison, Mitt Romney trying to explain health care and car bailouts, Jon Huntsman the Rhinoceros, Tim Pawlenty and his truth tour.
All of these storylines have been eagerly promoted by the Democratic National Committee and its allies, like Think Progress. (The image below shows the emails I got from the DNC on just one day last week.) And we are still 18 months away from the 2012 election. This is one of the great advantages of incumbency, after all. While President Obama tours the world, looking presidential and pretending to be unconcerned with electoral politics, Republicans will be battling in the political muck. And Obama’s supporters will be cheering from the sidelines.
There is, of course, lots of precedent for this sort of strategy. In the pre-Twitter, pre-endless news cycle days, George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 by starting early, and going hard at John Kerry, hoping to define him long before he had time to organize a defense. A March 20, 2004 New York Times story, ran with this lead:
President Bush’s campaign is following an aggressive and precise 90-day media strategy to define Senator John Kerry as indecisive and lacking conviction, with a coordinated blitz of advertisements, speeches and sound bites, senior campaign advisers said this week.
No doubt someone will write that story next spring about Team Obama’s approach to whomever emerges as the Republican nominee. In the meantime, the Democratic message establishment will be working hard to keep promoting lots of shiny objects for the American public. Among the top strategic goals for the Obama 2012 campaign is to make sure it is a choice, not a referendum. For the delighted worker bees blitzing reporters with the latest possibly embarrassing facts about the GOP heavyweights, it matters less whether the comparison is accurate–the swipe against Romney over the car bailout fell a bit short, as Kevin Drum explains. What matters is that the comparison is being made at all.