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What Romney Failed to Learn from John Kerry: You Can’t Run on Biography Alone

Republicans have been the first to assert, without shame, the parallels between their own “Swift-boating” of John Kerry in 2004 and the Obama campaign’s alleged “Swiss-boating” of Mitt Romney over Bain Capital’s business practices. But they have been less inclined to explore a deeper parallel that’s more about political strategy than ethics: How the Romney campaign, like the Kerry campaign before it, has set itself up for this adversity by placing undue weight on a sunny and largely unchallenged representation of the candidate’s biography.

When John Kerry began running for president in 2003, Democratic elites were acutely aware of the impact of 9/11 on swing voters in 2002—an atypical midterm victory for the party in power—and of the Bush White House’s skillful exploitation of old stereotypes about Democratic weakness on national security. Many supported Kerry—particularly against the frankly anti-war Howard Dean—for that reason alone, holding up his war record like a charm against the Rovian evil eye. By the time the general election campaign began, however, John Kerry, War Hero was by design the main voter impression of the nominee (as opposed to John Kerry, U.S. Senator or John Kerry, wealthy liberal). This backfired, in part, because the campaign had not anticipated and neutralized a massive airing of old grudges against Kerry as the public face of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and in part because so little else positive remained of the candidate’s public persona. Inside and beyond the Kerry campaign, and from the very beginning, many Democrats believed a broader message of “new American patriotism” or “common national purpose,” linked to but transcending the candidate’s biography would have been far more powerful and less vulnerable. But they were brushed aside.

In Romney’s case, the emphasis on biography had a different genesis but was equally powerful. His record as governor of Massachusetts was a minefield of problems in securing conservative votes in the primaries and conservative loyalties in the general election. His own policy agenda as a presidential candidate had few distinctive features, and mostly looked like a series of forced accommodations to conservative demands. Just as importantly, an agenda mainly composed of the Ryan Budget, the economic ideology of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and the social-issues ideology of the Christian Right did not look like an electoral winner. What was left to campaign on? Romney’s “character,” competence and private-sector bona fides (a tangible advantage in the primaries in comparisons with career pols like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum). Just as John Kerry’s Vietnam War–and-anti-War record was never tested in the Democratic nominating contest in 2004—his main problem was that he had voted for the Iraq War in the Senate—the underside of Romney’s Bain experience wasn’t seriously tested in the 2008 Republican nominating contest. When his rivals (most notably Newt Gingrich) tried to “go there,” they were shouted down by Republican elites as anti-capitalist.

If Romney is seriously “Swiss-boated,” there are two significant differences between his situation and that of Kerry during the stretch run in 2004. The first, to Romney’s great benefit, is that he may have a lower credibility threshold for the simple reason that the economy is so much worse than it was (or at least appeared to be) when Bush was running for a second term. But the second is that Kerry, once forced to abandon biography as the heart of his message, was able to fall back on a broad Democratic message and policy agenda that was competitive with Bush’s, with the support of a united party. Romney is caught between the realization that his own party’s agenda is not so popular, and the immense pressure he will face from the dominant conservatives of the GOP to prove himself by making his message as ideologically sharp and specific as possible the moment he abandons the biographical approach. Once Kerry won the nomination in 2004, the primaries were over for him. Once Mitt Romney is forced to articulate a broad message and a specific policy agenda, the primaries will begin all over again, and his party won’t let him avoid their demands unless he’s in deep trouble in the polls. And then it could be too late, and what would Romney do then anyway? Campaign strictly on his Winter Olympics record?

John Kerry may have had an exotic wife, a pricy education, and decidedly elite hobbies like wind-surfing. But when push came to shove among the blue-collar voters of Ohio, he could and did hoist a beer and get down and dirty with the Democratic base whose agenda he generally and demonstrably shared. And he did not have to deal with the equivalent of those Olympics videos where the 2012 Republican nominee cheerfully says: “Bonjour, je m’appelle Mitt Romney!”