by Paul Goldman
Professor Sabato is correct in saying the swing voters next year didn’t pay much if any attention to yesterdays debate between Tim Obama and George Bush [and you thought it was between Tim Kaine and George Allen? What live feed where you watching?]. The good doctor is right in saying events early next Fall, not late this Fall, will be determinative.
But I think what Larry and the media missed yesterday is something that didn’t hit me until watching the debate video again this morning: the key variable in the Kaine vs Allen shootout is almost surely set in stone already, not likely at all to change by election day no matter what the state of current affairs.
As I read their strategies, they see the campaign decided by one question: Who is the incumbent?
The Kaine and Allen campaigns have both concluded the incumbent loses next year. Yesterday’s debate was about incumbency, nothing more, nothing less. Even though there is no incumbent running!
As Wes Hester, the sharp RTD reporter noted, the Timster proved Yogi Berra’s famous remark about some things being too coincidental to be a coincidence. The Kaine that is able – as opposed to Herman Cain – regularly referred to Mr. Allen running for re-election in one form or another. One doesn’t have to be one of Mr. Allen’s opponents in the GOP primary to know the former Governor and Senator’s campaign still hasn’t developed a prime-time narrative to “spin” favorably his one term in the U.S. Senate. That Mr. Allen continues to struggle politically in this arena is increasingly noticeable, moreover it explains why he has so many Tea Party types running against him. In terms of politics, Allen knows he is connected to the George Bush Presidency, which isn’t a positive for swing voters right now.
Mr. Kaine has yet to refer to his opponent as George Bush. But I have to presume it is too early for this punch line. It is coming though in one form or another. The Democratic nominee is going to make George Allen Bush the incumbent. This has the added advantage of painting Allen with all the Bush troubles of 2007 and 2008, when the Great Recession and Financial Bubble hit. Mr. Allen was not in the Senate at the time.
But Kaine’s strategy is clear: George Allen Bush, the incumbent who was part of all those things which have helped make even conservatives mad, wants another term.
So it will be Republican George Allen Bush vs Democrat Tim Kaine Obama.
George Allen’s strategy has been on display for months now.
In politics, the incumbent generally has to defend the status quo, and that basically means playing defense against an aggressive challenger. This is why George Allen was a great candidate in 1993 and 2000, since he was running for the office first against 12 years of Democratic gubernatorial rule [the longest in modern times] and then the against incumbent, two term Senator Chuck Robb, the longest serving Democrat in the modern age. Mr. Allen is at his best in the challenger role where he can play against Democratic incumbency. .
But in 2006, Allen faced a different test, since he was seeking re-election: he wasn’t comfortable in that role since it requires a different skill set. He got into his infamous trouble by taking an aggressive challenger-like posture against a young Webb campaign worker shadowing him as part of the YouTube “gotcha” generation of campaign workers. Had he been comfortable in the role of incumbent, he would have brought the young man up to the front of the audience, asked his name, introduced him to the crowd, indeed let him speak. That’s the way an incumbent would handle it and send the same message.
But instead, George had to get confrontational, because this is the challenger’s mind set.
So he wants to run against incumbent Tim Kaine Obama. This avoids, to the extend possible, the necessity of having to defend his Senate record. But the crucial point here is this: it stems from what we saw yesterday, his sense of that record being a negative this year.
SO: Who IS the de facto incumbent, or more precisely which guy can make the other guy the incumbent?
Analyzing the debate video makes clear Tim is far more confident he can make George the incumbent than vice-versa. Why? Tim is much more at ease embracing the Obama years than George is regarding his role during the Bush years. Tim is not afraid to stand with Obama, and thus Warner along with Webb, on many things, while at the same time confident he will not be seen as a rubber stamp. So Tim, like a good boxer, isn’t afraid to take the opponent’s punch as long he gets to throw one of his own.
As for George, he is still stuck in 2006 mode even though his campaign apparently believes otherwise. What cost Senator Allen the election to Webb was not one comment in August, but rather his inability to get off the defensive once his initial offensive backfired. George can land them. But he winces when he gets hit because he can’t absorb them the way Tim can, at least not yet.
Compare George to Newt Gingrich: The Newtman, on paper, has a far more difficult history to defend. But the Virginian by way of Georgia has been able to do it so far by spinning a narrative to put it in context so he can go on the offensive, not stay on the defensive. Newt is proud of what he did as Speaker and wants you know that: by contrast, George wants to move to another subject as quickly as possible.
Or put another way: George Allen has the Tim Obama rap down. But he is too tongued tied when it comes to explaining why he isn’t George Bush.
Tim had to see that. So did the Allen campaign.
Based on the rules of boxing, a judge would have to call this first round a draw. There were no significant punches landed. But Kaine showed more spring in the legs. If that holds, when you get to the middle rounds, it will make a real difference.