Over the weekend, a pair of political pundits – National Journal’s Charlie Cook and the New York Times’ John Harwood -- engaged in some historical revisionism, suggesting President Obama’s emerging campaign strategy was (more or less) a carbon copy of President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election bid.
Like a lot of revisionist history, there was a surface appeal to their theories. But alas, neither writer got it right. Mr. Bush is not to blame for Mr. Obama’s dash to the far left wing of his party. Mr. Obama is.
Let’s begin with the noted prognosticator and electoral commentator extraordinaire Charlie Cook, who suggested that when “independent voters…viewed Bush with skepticism,” the 2004 reelection “began focusing more on expanding its base than on throwing huge amounts of resources at independent and undecided voters.” Mr. Obama, he opined, is merely doing this year what Mr. Bush did eight years ago.
If Mr. Bush won re-election by focusing on the Republican Party’s base, exactly how is it that he won 23% more votes than he received in 2000?
By focusing on the GOP base, did Mr. Bush (a) nearly erase the gender gap; (b) carry the highest percentage of Hispanic voters for a Republican since exit polls began tracking Latinos; (c) increase his share of the African-American vote by 22%; (d) boost his support among union households by 4 points; and (e) do better among Jewish voters than any Republican since Ronald Reagan swept 49 states in 1984?
Mr. Cook asserts all those gains occurred because the Bush campaign focused on its base rather than throw “huge amounts of resources” at swing voters. That’s news to me.
Mr. Cook described only one leg of the Bush tactical approach. Of course we took steps to energize the Republican base; any incumbent does. But the 2004 Bush re-election also focused a huge amount of attention on persuading independents and swiping “soft” Democrats. The former succeeded so well that Mr. Bush won 48% among independents and 11% of Democrats while Mr. Kerry carried 49% of independents and only 6% of Republicans.
Much of the Bush re-election’s massive volunteer effort was aimed at persuading non-Republicans to support Bush. So was its advertising, including an extensive under-the-radar effort on African-American radio stations that helped, for example, double Mr. Bush’s support among Black voters in Ohio.
Mr. Cook concedes that a “base-only” strategy has its weaknesses and risks, requiring a candidate to place all his political eggs in one political basket. That’s why Mr. Bush’s re-election would have rejected a “base-only” strategy in a nanosecond as politically insane.
Last weekend’s other revisionist journalist is the New York Times’ John Harwood. He, too, suggested Mr. Obama is parroting Mr. Bush’s 2004 strategy, writing that in 2004, “George W. Bush exploited social and national security issues to offset his economic vulnerabilities.”
But what “economic vulnerabilities” does Mr. Harwood have in mind? The average unemployment rate in 2003 was 6% and for 2004, 5.5% (compared to 9.1% today). According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the economy grew 4.7% in 2003 and 6.4% in 2004.
In the last two quarters, by comparison, the economy has grown at 0.4 percent and 1.3 percent. The 2004 election, in fact, took place in the midst of an unprecedented period of uninterrupted job growth. Mr. Obama is stressing social issues because he wants to downplay the economic ones.
In addition, it wasn’t Mr. Bush who injected social issues – namely gay marriage – into the 2004 campaign. It was instead the Massachusetts Superior Judicial Court with its November 2003 decision legalizing gay marriage in the Bay State. That is what altered the status quo and forced conservatives to react.
The Massachusetts decision set off a grass roots reaction throughout the country that eventually led 11 states to pass traditional marriage measures by referendum in November 2004.
It’s also worth noting that the then-president and his 2004 Democratic opponent both supported the traditional definition of marriage, as did Mr. Obama in his 2008 contest.
Third, Mr. Bush had little choice in making national security the focal point of his 2004 campaign. The Democratic opposition already had made it so: it was the number one issue in the 2003 lead-up to their primaries, propelling the little known governor of Vermont to frontrunner status (until his campaign imploded in Iowa).
To suggest Mr. Bush focused on Iraq and the War on Terror to compensate for the economy is laughable. With unemployment low and GDP growth robust, Democrats didn’t want to make the election about the economy. The war was an issue because the Democrats wanted to fight the campaign over it. And Mr. Bush was happy to oblige. We knew he could defeat Senator Kerry on multiple political fronts.
Mr. Harwood did hit the mark on an important aspect of Mr. Obama’s current strategy: the president has suffered an enormous decline among college graduates, independents and young people (his job approval rating among the last group has dropped 30 points since his inaugural).
But President Obama is pursuing a strategy that is completely at odds with, not similar to, the one pursued by President Bush. And these appeals to class warfare, demands for higher taxes, and slashing attacks on his political opponents are unlikely to get these voters back, no matter where Mr. Obama stands on social issues. These groups were among those most powerfully drawn to the young Illinois senator’s pledge to change Washington by being the president “not of red states or blue states but the United States.”
The latest Obama strategy, though, is to seek to divide Americans in every possible way, including by class and sexual orientation. And so Mr. Obama takes great delight in excoriating “millionaires and billionaires” for their “corporate jets.”
This weekend he attacked Republicans for not denouncing a couple of people sitting in a debate audience who booed a question on repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (they did not boo the gay soldier). This is a pitiful (and fruitless) effort to draw attention away from the disastrous effects of his stimulus program, alarm over his spending patterns and deficits, and the huge opposition to his signature achievement, health care reform.
To date Mr. Obama’s re-election strategy is, if anything, an anti-Bush strategy. If an unpaid intern had suggested we do what the Obama campaign is doing, he’d have been demoted. But thankfully no one on the ’04 Bush campaign was that stupid.
Karl Rove joined Fox News Channel as a political contributor in February 2008. He also currently serves as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads. His latest book is "The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters" (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @KarlRove.