Just as birds have to fly and fish have to swim, pundits have to predict. Please be warned that what follows comes from the same forecaster who, 11 years ago, assured readers that President John McCain in 2004 would not seek a second White House term.
But as the transvestite linebacker said: “You win some. You lose some. Some are rained out. But one way or the other, you have to dress for all of them.”
I am convinced that the 2012 presidential campaign will be one of the ugliest public spectacles you or I have ever endured.
Here’s why. Any election with an incumbent president running for re-election is, by definition, a referendum on the incumbent’s first term. The incumbent candidate seeking re-election can, if things are going well and the electorate is not unhappy, run a high-road campaign that celebrates the positive changes and argues a variation of “one good term deserves another.”
If, on the other hand, things have not gone swimmingly during the first term and the voters are annoyed or angry, then the incumbent will almost certainly run a low-road campaign that seeks to switch public attention away from his faults and blunders to his opponent’s alleged defects of intellect, character or judgment.
Barring a near-miraculous improvement in public prosperity, President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign will spend most of its time, money and energy trying to convince us that the Republican nominee, for perverse amusement, likes to stick bamboo shoots under the fingernails of widows and orphans.
An iron rule of American politics holds that when the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue. When unemployment is low and economic confidence is high, voters will tolerate a presidential campaign — like that of 1988 between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis — where the Republican candidate not only made mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance a constant issue but, to emphasize his commitment to the cause, paid a campaign visit to an American flag factory in Verona, N.J., to which one wit suggested Bush had come “for a fitting.”
Rather than discuss or defend the disappointing present — or to make a public apology acknowledging the mistakes they’ve made and the human pain they have unintentionally caused — Democrats, you can bet, will repeatedly document for us between now and Nov. 6, 2012, the collective overdue library books, unpaid parking tickets and marital lapses of the Republican(s).
An incumbent running in hard times needs to first convince voters that he understands that things have not gone, during his stewardship, as he had planned and as they had expected. But then the beleaguered incumbent had better be able to persuade the skeptical public that, because of his foxhole experience, he now has a credible, realistic plan to improve the lives of all Americans in the next four years. Democrats must know that if 2012 becomes a referendum on the status quo, they lose.
So I strongly suspect that the relentless refrain from unidentified senior officials in the Obama re-election campaign will be the Republican nominee a) would steal a hot stove and then go back for the smoke, b) will not order his marriage counselor to make public his records, c) has consistently refused to buy any Girl Scout cookies and d) would not take a breathalyzer test once in 1975.
This campaign, I am sad to say, will not be pretty.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.