Politicians annoy voters at their own peril. President Jimmy Carter started down the road of his landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in July 1979. As public anger grew over a stalled economy and OPEC-fueled gasoline lines, Carter took his 25% approval rating on the road, prodding Americans to cast off their “worship” of “self-indulgence and consumption” and try to conquer “this crisis of the American spirit.”
Carter basically told the American people their weaknesses of character were to blame for the fix the country was in — not his leadership. Reagan would counter that charge with one simple question in the final presidential debate: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
Telling voters that they’re weak or wrong on the issues seldom ends well. By contrast, telling voters that “Happy days are here again,” or agreeing that they know what’s good for them and what’s not and it’s the “other guy that just doesn’t get it” tends to turn out better.
On the campaign trail with Ronald Reagan in 1980, I watched “The Great Communicator” capitalize on Carter’s misstep every day. “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job,” Reagan said at every campaign stop. “Depression is when you lose your job. Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job.”
In Michigan, jobs are a big issue. And had GM and Chrysler been allowed to fail, more than 1 million jobs wold have been lost, according to the Center for Automotive Research. That renders Romney’s argument moot — at least in the view of many primary voters.
To be fair, Santorum also opposed the auto industry bailout, but among Michigan Republicans that seems almost beside the point for now. And the Detroit Three are a long way from a return to prosperity, and face serious headwinds in 2012 and beyond.
But Romney’s continued harping on the bailout issue isn’t helping him. After all, he didn’t simply write an anti-bailout op ed four years ago, he wrote another one in the Detroit News on Tuesday.
By stubbornly advancing the argument that he was right on the bailout, Romney fails to engage voters on why he would be right for the country. With the Feb. 28 primary fast approaching, Romney is running out of time to fix this flat tire and get his campaign back on the road.
Susan J. Aluise is a former White House correspondent who has covered several presidential campaigns.
The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.
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