In presidential politics as in life, there are few desires more powerful than the longing for a time machine. If you could only go back and warn that prior self – “Even if the question is boring, don’t look at your watch!” “Maybe don’t take this one to 11, Howard.” “Did you really memorize this list? Really?” – maybe disaster could be avoided and your political career saved.
Of course, we know that time machines of the Hollywood sort are impossible in this universe, for the simple reason that a strangely garbed man did not appear out of nowhere to murder George Lucas in 1983. Yet this past week we found both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama apparently longing for the same elusive technology to help them undo the mistakes of prior elections.
For President Obama, the mistakes are in the most recent 2014 cycle: despite the defensiveness of the White House, it’s obvious that he, like most Democrats, is wishing he’d focused more on stagnant middle class wages and boosting working class pocketbooks instead of on class warfare income inequality rhetoric.
Of course, the plan is completely bollixed, a mutant Room To Grow that retains much of the election era animosity for the rich while embracing a perverse approach to warping family decisionmaking on the way to boosting incomes. For just one example: consider that Obama’s tax credit for two income families would effectively establish a tax penalty for those households with a stay at home parent and a breadwinner. That sounds like a great idea all around with no negative consequences.
For Mitt Romney, the need for a time machine is clearer: you can almost see him writing on the floorboards, “They’re not the 47 percent! You like poor people too!” It’s a desperate fight for the last war, but Romney certainly wants to win it. If he ran in 2012 as the rich smart technocrat who can fix the economy, harsh and severe and prepared to do battle with the moochers, he seems to want to run in 2016 as the compassionate philanthropist with a prescient view of foreign policy and a heart of gold for the working poor. That’s fine, but it’s a public relations strategy, not a campaign.
There were alternate paths for both these men at the time. Romney could’ve run a campaign focused more on going after the corporatist priorities of the Obama administration and proposed policies that were targeted more at middle class priorities of the heartland, and maybe the voters that stayed home in Ohio might have come out. Obama could’ve done a sharp centrist turn post-Obamacare, partnered with moderate Hill Republicans instead of viewing the whole party with animosity, and turned into a Clintonesque triangulating reformer instead of a frustrated ideologue. But they made their decisions, and the window of opportunity for undoing them has closed. Unless Mitt plans to use those donations to build Interstellar into reality, of course… which is probably a better investment of money and time.