Political pundits and commentators have begun to compare the current US presidential campaign to that of 2004. Earlier this month, their attention was grabbed by the parallel between the "Swiftboat Veterans" attacks on Kerry's character, besmirching his combat record in Vietnam, and the recent outpouring of negative stories and Obama campaign focus on Romney's record at Bain Capital. Of course, back in 2004, the attacks on Kerry were all scurrilous lies, Bush was the cowardly Vietnam-era draft-dodger - see copious documentation here. In 2012, Romney's biggest problem of late is his own words: SEC documents he himself signed, declaring himself "sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president" of Bain at a time he now claims he had nothing to do with the firm.
Still, given that 2004 is the most recent presidential re-election campaign, the comparison is a useful one to explore, provided we keep in mind that differences can be as illuminating as similarities, even when the two get jumbled together. In 2004, as usual, the Democrats were playing by one set of rules, while Republicans played with no rules at all. Kerry tried to ignore the Swiftboat attacks, under the deluded assumption that they would just go away if he didn't respond to them. "Keep to the issues," the thinking went. Democrats always think that way, following the dictates of conventional wisdom. But whether or not a political leader is willing to stand up and fight is always one of the issues. That's something that Democrats used to understand, back in the days of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. Nowadays? Not so much.
But - as a campaigner, at least - Obama is different. For all his fruitless, scorned attempts to cooperate with Republicans once in office (loading the stimulus bill up with tax cuts, adopting the Romney/Heritage Foundation model for health care reform, etc), Obama the campaigner is an entirely different sort of creature. In 2008, his campaign responded rapidly, even proactively to any sort of threat before it could get a foothold. He fought back so deftly that people tend to forget he even fought at all - which was just how Obama wanted it, when he was trying to govern from the centre. In 2012, his campaign is politely ignoring its brain-dead centrist critics, moving aggressively to define Romney before Romney defines himself, identifying him with the most destructive economic consequences of GOP-supported policies over the past generation or more - policies that helped make Romney stupendously rich.
On one hand, this is just what incumbents always do - or at least try to: define the challenger as unacceptable before the challenger can define themselves. And in this sense, 2012 is like 2004... and 1996, 1992, 1984, 1980, 1976, etc, etc, etc. On the other hand, something more is going on this time. As Paul Krugman recently put it" "[T]alking about Mr Romney's personal history isn't a diversion from substantive policy discussion. On the contrary, in a political and media environment strongly biased against substance, talking about Bain and offshore accounts is the only way to bring the real policy issues into focus."
In 2004, the Swiftboat attacks were not just based on lies, they were also intended to preempt any serious critical discussion of policy alternatives. "Don't think about Iraq. Don't think about the future," they said. "Think about Vietnam. Think about the past." In 2012, the Bain attacks are just the opposite. They are meant to bring policy differences to the fore, to make them matter at the ballot box the way they matter in real life. It's the Romney camp that doesn't want that. "Economy bad. Obama bad" - that is the extent of the Romney message. Anything more complicated than that works against Romney - and he knows it.
Perhaps that's why Romney is in so much trouble right now. As uber-analyst Charlie Cook put it:
"The strategic decision by the Romney campaign not to define him personally - not to inoculate him from inevitable attacks - seems a perverse one. Given his campaign's ample financial resources, the decision not to run biographical or testimonial ads, in effect to do nothing to establish him as a three-dimensional person, has left him open to the inevitable attacks for his work at Bain Capital, on outsourcing, and on his investments. It's all rather inexplicable. Aside from a single spot aired in the spring by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, not one personal positive ad has been aired on Romney's behalf."
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Cook - a brand name in the world of inside political analysis - is right to highlight this unusual situation, but his very insiderness makes it difficult for him to explore why this might be so. One powerful answer takes us back to 2004 again.
Kerry, too, failed to define himself, though, like Romney, his campaign insiders probably didn't realise it. But Arianna Huffington - a longtime insider with carefully honed outsider sensibilities - clearly saw the need that Kerry's handlers overlooked, and offered a brilliant prescription to answer it ("John Kerry And Bobby Kennedy's Unfinished Mission").
"The 2004 election is our chance to prove to ourselves and to the world what America really stands for," Huffington wrote. "This election is a referendum on our future: are we a nation based on hope and promise, or a nation based on fear?"
The heart of Huffington's piece drew parallels between Kerry and Robert Kennedy's run in 1968 - a powerful formative influence on Kerry - which RFK cast in precisely those terms. Kerry had the potential to do the same, she argued, but "The problem is that Kerry is still only doling out his vision in drips and dribbles. He has not connected the dots with a bold narrative ... The irony is that the Kerry narrative is one of the great narratives in the history of American politics - a personal tale that links his life story to the history of our times, to his vision for the renewal of America."
Huffington went on to discuss Kerry's volunteering for military service - in striking contrast to the neocon chickenhawks - as well as Kerry's RFK-like passion in advocating for the underdog. But the heart of her message was this:
"Kerry's political narrative starts on June 5, 1968 - the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated: John Kerry is on board the USS Gridley, returning home from Vietnam. He carries with him a dog-eared copy of RFK's political manifesto 'To Seek a Newer World'. During the last month, Kerry has been using the ship's radio to follow Kennedy's remarkable campaign run. But when he tunes in to hear the results of the California primary, the crackling radio delivers the horrifying news that Bobby has been gunned down - news that rocks Kerry to his core. 'It was strange,' he says, 'coming home from a place of violence to a place of violence. a violence that shook our very sense of the order of things'.
"This was the beginning of his coming of age as a leader, which culminated three years later with his 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With the help of former RFK speechwriter Adam Walinsky, Kerry crafted a compelling, unflinching speech filled with all the moral clarity, fearlessness, and boldness our current times demand. 'How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?' memorably asked Lieutenant Kerry - wrenching words just as applicable to today's Iraq as they were to Vietnam in '71."
What Huffington suggested was the articulation of a grand narrative, a narrative with deep roots in US history, though framed in terms of struggle, rather than complacent triumphalism. Not only did Kerry not take this advice. He did the exact opposite. He attempted to disown his complicated and instructive past, which could have informed his entire campaign, and instead presented himself in a static, iconic manner: "John Kerry, reporting for duty."
Lack of options
Romney is repeating an almost identical scenario. But why? Well, for one thing, he can't tell the truth. That's what he's running from. But GOP candidates are experts at fabrication. Why can't he fabricate convincingly? The reason is simple: his base won't let him. They are demanding a full-throated defence of precisely what Romney actually represents: the super-rich CEO as Ayn Rand sociopath-hero. (Rand's model for her first sketch of her ideal man was an actual, real-life psycho-killer, William Edward Hickman, whose credo: "What is good for me is right", Rand called "the best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard".)
It is Rand's vision of heroic Galtian "wealth creators" vs the 99 per cent drawn from Atlas Shrugged that's completely taken over the GOP since Obama's election. Those not gripped by the Randian fever dream simply can't grasp its hypnotic appeal. The unfortunate result for Romney is that anything he might say or do to define himself differently from the Randian script runs the immediate risk of drawing renewed fire from his own base, which is why his team has not followed Charlie Cook's seemingly obvious advice.
But the same thing was true of Kerry in 2004 as well. The only difference was that the "Democratic base" threatening Kerry was not those usually identified as such - grassroots activists and core voting constituencies - but rather the mass of consultants, strategists, pundits and others who've been moving the party ever rightward since 1972, constantly afraid of the direction that Robert F Kennedy laid out, the road not taken by the Democratic Party for the past 44 years now, the road that Barack Obama only seemed to represent when he ran the first time in 2008, only to abandon it once elected.
There are only a few nationally prominent figures, such as Elizabeth Warren, who now represent that road not taken. But one last lesson from the life of Robert F Kennedy is that it only takes one such figure to change the direction of our lives - not because of who they are, but because they remind us of who we are, when all other forces are trying to make us forget.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.