Diverging timelines favor Democrats, so far

By Tom Baxter

The insensate calendar says we’re at the end of March, but without the basketball you wouldn’t know it. It could be well into May by the way it feels outside, and the political calendar has become just as confusing as the weather.

The presidential election has spun out into very different timelines, Red and Blue. The year’s Red timeline begins, prophetically, with the Iowa Caucuses, a marred contest in which Mitt Romney was declared the winner, only to have the victory handed to Rick Santorum a couple of weeks later following a recount.

Since then the Republican nomination battle has been a long march of the wounded, but the crucial capitulation necessary to bring it to a close – that of the Republican primary voters – has yet to take place. In the Fox News exit polls from Saturday’s Louisiana primary, only 27 percent of them said they prefer that the race end as soon as possible, even if their candidate loses, while 70 percent would prefer their candidate to win the nomination even if it takes months.

That same exit poll asked the Louisiana voters – no, seriously, it did – how important the Etch-A-Sketch controversy was to them, and predictably most said it wasn’t. (In case you’ve already forgotten, this was the flap over a too-cynical Romney aide’s remark that it would be like Etch-A-Sketch, so far as positioning on issues went, once the General Election campaign begins.)

There was no exit poll question about the woman who hollered “pretend it’s Obama” to Rick Santorum when he was at a shooting range last week. But the media coverage of this campaign has become a whining butcher’s blade, slicing off ever-thinner slices of such irrelevancies with every news cycle. That has been the cost – along with the millions funneled through super PACs – of this long and indecisive Republican campaign.

It’s March, but a lot of Republicans still want it to be February, while the Democrats should be hoping this was July.

The Blue timeline doesn’t have primaries and caucuses to mark the weeks, but it’s an election-year calendar nevertheless. It starts with an upbeat January jobs report, the first in a string of improved numbers which have considerably brightened the economic picture for Democrats.

Early in February the House Republicans threw in the towel on the payroll tax cut, implicitly acknowledging that fighting to keep the Bush tax cut for upper incomes while allowing a working-class tax cut to die was an election-year disaster.

It was a House Republican effort to regain the political high ground after this setback that resulted instead in their being maneuvered into refusing to let a woman sit on an all-male panel of clergymen opposed to contraception mandates. Democrats got the better of them in that news cycle, but they had no real idea of their good fortune until, on Feb. 29, Rush Limbaugh began his three-day rant against Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who had been denied a seat at one panel but testified before another, with more cameras present.

Three days before Limbaugh called Ms. Fluke a slut, on a rainy night in Florida, a 17-year-old black youth, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by an over-zealous member of a neighborhood watch group, George Zimmerman. Within that brief span, the sparks were flashed that would ignite the Democratic base all the way from liberal professional women to African-Americans.

Out of these larger social dramas has emerged the election-year persona of Barack Obama, Parent. His phone call to Ms. Fluke and his remark that a son of his would look like the slain youth underscore the image of a responsible leader who can feel the pain of other parents, a theme we’re likely to see underscored in the months ahead. He drew the ire of Newt Gingrich, who said it was “appalling” Obama was trying to turn the shooting into a racial issue. To which many voters of color must have looked at their televisions and said, “It is a racial issue.”

Obama does risk going too far in his more frequent allusions to his own family, but he has positioned himself as a voice on issues that matter to Americans, while his potential opponents talk about Etch-A-Sketch. From a campaign standpoint, things couldn’t be going better for him, which should be a caution to Democrats.

They run the risk of sailing into the next phase of the campaign thinking they have been the authors of their good fortune when they have been largely – the deftness of those House Democrats who lured the Republicans into the Sandra Fluke blunder notwithstanding – its beneficiaries. There is still ample time for the Republican cruise ship to get back on course, and no telling what international news might cloud the picture between now and November. For Republicans, the danger is that they’re too far behind the calendar. For Democrats, it’s that they may be way too early.

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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