If you don’t have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare voters. If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.
— Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention
Saddled with a candidate who has run out of fresh ideas and who doesn’t have a record to run on, David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s political Merlin, has waved his magic wand and conjured up a totally new persona for his candidate.
Gone is the once-likable Barack Obama who ran on a smile in 2008. In his place, Axelrod has created a crabby candidate who uses stale tactics and negative advertising to scare voters away from Mitt Romney and the Republicans.
But wait a second: Haven’t we seen this low-road candidate before?
Is it possible that Barack Obama has morphed into Richard Nixon, who insinuated during his 1954 anti-Communist campaign that a number of Democratic legislators were soft on communism? In response to that irresponsible scare tactic, Herblock, the Washington Post cartoonist, drew an unforgettable portrait of a saturnine Tricky Dick crawling out of an open sewer.
Or is Obama trying to channel Rudolph Giuliani? When Giuliani was considering running for the U.S. Senate against Hillary Clinton in 2000, New York City’s colorful former Mayor Ed Koch wrote a book, titled “Giuliani: Nasty Man,” in which he described Giuliani as a ruthless politician who twisted the truth.
Has Obama emerged as the nasty man of 2012?
Or has Axelrod ripped a page out of Harry Truman’s 1948 playbook and fashioned a campaign for Obama in which he demonizes Mitt Romney and runs against a “Do Nothing” Republican Congress?
You can hear an echo of “Give ‘em hell, Harry” when Obama declares: “This Congress — they are accustomed to doing nothing, and they’re comfortable with doing nothing, and they keep on doing nothing.”
In fact, Axelrod’s strategy is virtually a copy of a 65-year-old memorandum written by Harry Truman’s political guru, Clark Clifford, and titled “The Politics of 1948.”
The gist of Clifford’s memo was the need to divert attention from Truman’s domestic and foreign problems and make the contest a conflict between Congress and the president. In such a battle, Clifford argued, “[t]he presidency is vastly more flexible than Congress… There is little possibility that [the president] will get much cooperation from the Congress, but we want the president to be in a position to receive credit for whatever they do accomplish while also being in a position to criticize the Congress for being obstructionist.”
Axelrod’s update of the Clifford strategy is aimed at solidifying the Democratic Party base, reclaiming the middle, and dividing the country through class warfare against “millionaires,” “fat cats” and “the owners of yachts and corporate jets.”
There are, however, several problems with this approach. To begin with, Truman’s campaign against the Republicans in Congress was not the main factor in his come-from-behind victory against Republican Thomas Dewey. The economy, which was growing at a sizzling 6.8 percent in the first half of 1948, had a lot more to do with it.
More important, a strategy of class warfare threatens to damage the coalition that Axelrod put together for Obama in 2008. Obama did very poorly with middle-class voters, but he got 26 percent of voters whose household income was more than $100,000. And a majority of the top 1 percent voted for Obama.
Obama is waging a campaign that in no way resembles his inspirational hope and change campaign of 2008. “This is a choice about who we are and what we stand for,” he declares, “and whoever wins this election is going to set the template for this country for a long time to come…. The alternative I think is an approach to government that would fundamentally cripple America in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.”
Strong words that suggest a Republican president would devastate, ruin and destroy the United States.
One can just imagine David Axelrod sitting in his war room in Chicago and screening the infamous 1964 anti-Barry Goldwater TV commercial, which showed a little girl picking petals from a daisy while an ominous-sounding male voice counted down to the launch of a nuclear missile.
It’s a pretty safe bet that, before this presidential campaign is over, Axelrod will try to devise an updated version of the “Daisy Girl” commercial in 2012.
Edward Klein is the former editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is "Blood Feud: The Clintons vs. the Obamas" (Regnery 2014). His previous book "The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House" (Regnery 2012) was a bestseller and is no available in paperback.