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President Barack Obama

Susan Walsh, Associated Press - Ap

Obama has learned from the 1980s

  • Article by: DOUG ROSSINOW
  • July 29, 2012 - 7:10 PM

Republicans are irate that President Obama's reelection campaign is making election issues of Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, allegations that Romney outsourced American jobs, and even Romney's personal investment practices.

Republicans also scoff at the notion that Obama can essentially run against George W. Bush. They think that, after almost four years in office, Obama "owns" the sluggish economy.

Can Obama win by looking backward and blaming his predecessor for tough times? Can he win by attacking Romney's values and character -- which is what the Bain and tax-shelter accusations really are all about?

We shall see. What is clear is that Team Obama has internalized the lessons of Democratic defeats at Republican hands in past presidential election campaigns. Learning from the winners may be enough to hand Obama a second term in the White House.

A look at the victorious campaigns of Ronald Reagan in 1984 and his vice president, George H. W. Bush, in 1988 reveals striking resemblances to the current Obama campaign.

Republicans may be upset, in part, because they see a Democrat using tactics they thought the GOP had patented.

In 1984, Walter Mondale was the Democrat up against the incumbent, Reagan, who had overseen a severe recession and then a robust recovery during his first term as president. Mondale had been vice president under Reagan's Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter. This made Reagan's task easier: He ran against Carter again.

Republicans who complain that Obama still blames George W. Bush for the country's economic woes should recall that Reagan spent his first four years as president blaming Carter for everything that had gone wrong during Reagan's time as president. And it didn't stop at election time.

Mondale, in his speech accepting his party's nomination in July 1984, said, "I'm Walter Mondale. You may have heard of me -- but you may not really know me." This attempt to introduce himself was too little, too late. It signaled that Reagan already had "defined" Mondale as another Carter.

Reagan's convention speech, one month later, attacked his opponent more aggressively than Mondale's had. It was as if Carter were on the ballot again. "Our opponents began this campaign hoping that America has a poor memory," Reagan said. "Well, let's take them on a little stroll down memory lane ..." He then recalled the woes of the Carter years in detail.

Reagan's advisers worried that he was offering no second-term agenda. Reagan was more interested in winning. He said, "Let us ... renew the mandate of 1980, to move us further forward on the road we presently travel ..." This theme -- give me a second term to finish what I started; let's not go back to the other party's discredited policies -- echoes clearly in Obama's 2012 campaign.

In 1988, the Democrat, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, tried to run as a good manager, but Bush brushed that gambit aside. Bush questioned Dukakis's values through the prism of public policy.

He assailed Dukakis for having vetoed a state bill that would have required public schoolteachers to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance. Bush raised the issue of the rape committed by "Willie" Horton, a Massachusetts prisoner who escaped from a weekend furlough, against a Maryland woman.

"I'm the one who believes it is a scandal to give a weekend furlough to a hardened first-degree killer who hasn't even served enough time to be eligible for parole," declared Bush.

Democrats cried foul, partly because Horton was black and his victims were white. They thought this was demagoguery of the lowest kind. But Republicans viewed questions of crime policy as legitimate issues of public leadership.

There is no incendiary racial dimension to the Obama campaign's attacks on Romney's record. But, other than that, the Obama game plan recalls the successful efforts by Republican winners of the 1980s.

Obama is running against George W. Bush -- but does not harp on Bush's legacy as consistently as Reagan did on Carter's record in 1984. Obama is "defining" Romney negatively, calling his values as a leader into question. He is drawing on the lessons of past winners, not those of past losers.

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Doug Rossinow is chair of the history department at Metropolitan State University and author of a forthcoming history of the 1980s.

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