Why Election 2012 Went Small Ball

I think we all know the reasoning why the presidential campaign looks so small, but, The Politico attempts to ascribe the same type of small campaign to Romney even more than Obama

The 2012 election is over at last, and its supporting cast–a complex of operatives and reporters, locked in an embrace of mutual need and mutual contempt, an audience of millions, at once transfixed and repelled–is gasping at the finish line, collapsed in a heap.

Eighteen months after the affair got underway with the first Republican primary debate, the country is looking back Tuesday on a campaign of superlatives. Objectively: the most expensive ever, by far. Subjectively: The most garish and debased election of the modern era.

These two opposites in fact are closely connected. Yes, there are specific people to blame, and no better place to start than the top: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were co-conspirators in driving what they both claimed was the most important election of our lifetimes into cul-de-sacs of trivia and evasion. But it is clear that both men found themselves caught in a vortex of large forces that converged to make the election small.

Most of all, the leading actors were small–either content with their diminished stature or powerless to change it. Obama, who four years ago encouraged people to view him as an epic figure, riding a wave of history, this time encouraged people to view him in life-size terms, as a mortal figure who had done the best he could amid setbacks and disappointments and was at least better than the alternative. Romney ran mainly as the vessel for anti-Obamaism, and watched helplessly as his biggest career achievements–in business and as Massachusetts governor–turned into partial liabilities.

Of course, this same thing plays out every four years, with partisan mud-slinging, taking advantage of gaffes, attacking on small things. Double of course, usually the media plays its part as an observer, exposing issues on both sides, rather than ignoring or covering for the issues that cropped up for Obama.

Sometimes Obama was the target of “cable chatter,” as when his clumsy wording (“You didn’t build that”) of an unremarkable assertion–that most successful business people benefited somewhere along the way from public education and vibrant communities–was pounced on by conservative commentators and Romney highlighted it for weeks. But his own team was equally relentless in exploiting marginal controversies to advantage, such as Romney’s awkward wording (“binders full of women”) about his genuinely strong record appointing women to senior positions in Massachusetts.

Yet, “you didn’t build that” was a perfect encapsulation of what Obama believes, that things can never be accomplished without the supersized helping hand of the Central Government. When it comes to “binders”, that actually highlights thoughtful and extensive business practices. The first was not small ball, the second was. Much like Big Bird, vaginas, accusations against Bain after Romney had left, accusations that Romney paid no taxes, and most of the Obama campaign. Small ball.

This time, neither Obama nor Romney is making an appeal on such romantic notions of leadership and for good reason–there is no evidence the public would buy it.

In Obama’s case, the obstacle is his own mixed record. The power of his rhetoric and biography did nothing to tame Washington’s bitter partisan wars, as he had suggested in 2008. Nor did the administration achieve its own projections to bring unemployment down to 5.4 percent by now. This also explains Romney’s choice to present himself as a pragmatic problem-solver rather than as an inspirational figure. Still, though, the rhetorical distance between his 2008 campaign and his re-election bid was jarring. The high tones of hope and change were replaced by a constituency-touching, slice-and-dice attempt to get a bare majority by effectively scaring enough people about the consequences of electing Romney.

What Obama lacked in imagination, Romney made up for in cynicism. The Republican pretended the Bush years didn’t exist and sought to indict the incumbent with a content-free campaign on the unemployment rate while openly bragging about not giving the voters details that could prove politically inconvenient to him.

What details did Obama give us? He mostly stayed away from his own record, giving the same platitudes about Iraq being ended (but not noting that Obama followed the Bush plan), Afghanistan is almost over (while negotiating with the Taliban), GM is alive (and the taxpayers are out tens of billions of dollars), and Osama is dead (continuous spiking of the football). Obama fails to mention that 4 Americans are dead in Benghazi because of his own fecklessness. Most of his record is a disaster. Obamacare still polls negatively. Unemployment is still high. People are dropping out of the jobs market in record numbers. Record numbers of people on food stamps and welfare. Failure to pass a budget. And this campaign was brought to you by the letter O and the number $16 trillion. So, of course he went small ball.

Romney, on the other hand, did not attempt to appear as a savior, a messiah, a rock star. He positioned himself as a guy who would lead through competence and hard work, not soaring rhetoric and then outsourcing the work while he hits the golf course and yet another concert with celebs. We’ll see which campaign pays off.

So, why did the election season go small ball? Because you have a small president who refused to run on his record, blamed everyone else for his own failures to move the economy forward, and refused to discuss what his actual agenda is.

Crossed at Pirate’s Cove. Follow me on Twitter @WilliamTeach.

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