Perhaps the bigger lesson from the Marco Rubio-Chris Christie contretemps is not about repetition, but about target selection. Barack Obama has served as a form of measuring stick for Republican candidates since taking office, and the 2016 primary fight has not yet escaped that paradigm even while Obama plans for his retirement. Rubio tried to frame the split between incrementalism and transformationalism within the GOP using this measure, as Rush Limbaugh noted at the time:
[Beltway insiders think Obama]’s no different than any other Democrat. “It’s just the Democrat Party, and they have a president.” They don’t see the country in crisis in any way. Not because of the economy, not because of immigration, not because of foreign policy. In no way are we in a crisis. And, as such, they don’t see what Obama’s doing as anything except maybe a young, inexperienced — this is Christie’s point — incompetent boob. Well, that’s not who Obama is. Rubio’s opponents are using it to disqualify him. “See! Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing, and Rubio’s the same kind of guy, just a few short years in the Senate running for president. We can’t afford it.
“Meanwhile, the governors! We’re the guys. We’re the tough guys. We’ve had to make tough decisions,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. The governors will not admit who Obama is. The governors will not admit it, and Trump does not agree that Obama is purposely doing this. Trump thinks he’s a blithering incompetent. This is crucially important.
It certainly might be within a Republican primary, but it may miss the point for most voters. The issue of attacking Obama came up repeatedly in my research for Going Red as a potential stumbling block for voters who may have voted for Obama but wound up disillusioned and open to change. As I explain in my column for The Week, the constant barrage of negative attacks on Obama wound up backfiring with voters who might have been persuaded to try a Republican:
In 2012, however, Republicans had more opportunities for victory. Much of the failure to grasp that victory was again due to organizational failures and a lack of engagement. One key lesson, however, has to do with the manner in which Mitt Romney framed his argument in regard to Obama. Rather than focus on a positive message that looked to a Romney-led future, the campaign became focused on Obama as both incompetent and extreme.
This created a dissonant reaction among voters who supported Obama in 2008 as a historic figure, but might have been persuaded to change directions in 2012 had Republicans focused primarily on something other than a litany of Obama’s failures. One Florida voter in a younger, gentrifying area of Tampa told me of a neighbor that put an Obama sticker on his refrigerator in the first election, but like some in the area, had begun to be disillusioned by Obama after four years. However, they retained that emotional connection to their 2008 vote, seeing it as a protest against politics as usual and a hope for a better public-policy environment. Constant Republicans attacks on Obama not only felt like personal attacks on their own judgment, but also the very kind of politics they believed they rejected in 2008.
At least in that cycle, Republicans had a legitimate reason for basing their campaign on the failures and/or excesses of Obama’s presidency. He was, after all, an incumbent seeking re-election. But in 2016, Obama’s presidency will belong to the past, not to the future. Republicans have an opportunity to reset their approach and engage with voters in key demographics much more successfully.
For candidates like Rubio and Cruz especially, they have opportunities to resonate as forward-looking candidates of the future. (Worth noting: Trump bashes the status quo but rarely mentions Obama specifically.) Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are candidates of the past. Hillary wants to run on the Clintons’ former glories of the 1990s, and Sanders wants to run on the European economics of the 1960s and 1970s. Tangling with voters over Obama is not just surrendering part of the ability to direct voters to the future, it also reopens the emotional connections voters had to their 2008 votes, which turned out to be surprisingly durable in 2012.
The philosophical debate in the GOP ranks is useful, but only for a very short period of time. If they spend the rest of the primary obsessing over Obama rather than a positive vision for a Republican-led future, don’t be surprised if many voters choose the past they’ve already endorsed.