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Dick Polman: Obama is no Carter, Romney no Reagan

It was in the fall of 2010, during a break in the taping of a TV talk show, when I first heard the GOP’s operative theory about the election of 2012. A conservative activist leaned toward me with a smile and excitedly intoned two magic words:

“Jimmy Carter.”

And there it was. The template for beating Barack Obama would be Ronald Reagan’s victory over the beleaguered Democratic incumbent of 1980. Indeed, Mitt Romney’s people keep insisting that, just like in 1980, a bad economy will trigger a late surge toward the Republican challenger, and game over.

But with our presidential election just seven weeks away, the flaws in the Romney game theory have become glaringly obvious:

Those of us who were adults in 1980 remember what the economy was like. The jobless rate back then seems tame by today’s standards (it was roughly 7 percent), but the real issue was the inflation rate. Today it is minimal; in 1980, it was nearly 16 percent. That was Carter’s main economic albatross. Whether you had a job or not, you got whacked big time whenever you went to the supermarket. And everyone was still sore about the energy crisis of 1979, when it became necessary to queue up in long lines just to pump gas.

Obama is not stuck with runaway inflation. Nor is he saddled with a chronic stock-market decline, as occurred during much of 1980. Nor is he getting hammered by frustrated middle-class people seeking to buy homes – as was the case with Carter in 1980, when mortgage interest rates were 14 percent.

Carter fared no better in the foreign-policy realm. On a daily basis, from January to the election, voters were reminded that 51 Americans remained captive in Iran, and that their president seemed incapable of doing anything about it. That was Carter’s narrative. Obama’s narrative is that he keeps sending unmanned drones to kill top members of al-Qaida – and, in doing so, he has erased the Carter-era perception that Democrats are national-security wusses.

The Romney people who pine for 1980 also forget that Obama enjoys domestic political advantages that Carter never had. Heading into the autumn campaign, Democrats are virtually united behind the incumbent – in contrast to 1980, when Democrats were deeply divided. Edward Kennedy had unsuccessfully challenged Carter from the left in the primaries, and it got very bitter. I can still remember the final night of the convention, during the balloon drop, when Carter literally pursued Kennedy around the stage, trying in vain to get the guy to shake his hand. The whole affair sowed bitterness in the ranks and weakened the party during the stretch drive to November.

Plus, there was a robust third-party candidate in 1980, a moderate Republican named John Anderson, and he gave disappointed Democrats another place to go. Plus, the electorate in 1980 was far less polarized than it is today; voters were far more willing back then to cross party lines. Reagan that November garnered roughly 33 percent of the Democratic voters. Romney this November will be lucky to get 5 percent.

And Romney is no Reagan anyway. Indeed, Republicans who actually worked for Reagan scoff at the very idea of a parallel.

Whether you agreed with Reagan or not, you knew where he stood. Romney, by contrast, continues to be more elusive and slippery than a bar of shower soap. Witness Romney’s recent interview on “Meet the Press,” when he seemed to be amending his promise to kill Obamacare: “Of course, there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I’m going to put in place.” But after the Republican right went ballistic, his staff spent the rest of the day insisting he hadn’t meant what he had clearly said.

And then we got Romney’s non-Reaganesque response to the embassy attacks in Libya and Egypt. In the midst of the violence last week, he rushed out a statement that condemned Obama for seeking “to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” It was bad enough that Romney was trying to politicize an evolving international crisis for his own partisan ends by painting the president as a terrorist sympathizer; worse yet, he made the charge without a shred of evidence (there was none) that Obama had ever voiced any sympathy for the attackers.

Compare Romney’s response to Reagan’s response in the spring of 1980. Carter’s attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages failed when the military choppers crashed in the desert, but the Republican challenger made no attempt to exploit it or slime the incumbent. Instead, Reagan simply said: “This is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united.”

Which explains why old Reagan hands have been savaging Romney for days. For instance, former speechwriter Peggy Noonan: “In times of great drama and heightened crisis, in times when something violent has happened to your people, I always think that discretion is the way to go. I don’t believe Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors.” And here’s ex-Reagan White House aide Ed Rogers: “At this solemn, serious moment, Mitt Romney had to be crisp and precise. He was neither. (President Obama) had to display stature and resolve. He did both. . . . The comparison between the two men is inevitable, and the president looked like a president is supposed to. I guess Romney looked like the candidate he is, and nothing else.”

In fact, whereas Reagan was clearly in the ascent at this point in the 1980 calendar – he led Carter in the early post-convention polls – Romney has been descending. The race seemed virtually tied on the eve of the conventions, but no longer. A Gallup tracking poll showed Obama with a 7 percentage point lead, and even the latest Fox News poll – which had Romney up by a point pre-convention – last week showed him down by 5 points. In the annals of polling, every challenger who has trailed in mid-September has lost in November.

Who knows? Maybe there’s still time for Romney to grow a Reaganesque spine, for the Democratic Party to implode, for Obama to pull back his drones, for the inflation rate to soar – but, no. The campaign of ‘80 was so 32 years ago.