In 1972, at the start of a career which culminated in his work as President George W. Bush’s Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove was executive director of the College Republicans.  In that capacity he got an up-close look at the approach President Nixon used in campaigning against George McGovern, when RN, after years being thought of by pundits as the quintessential partisan, was able to run as the representative of the political center against a candidate regarded even by many in his own party as an ideological extremist.
Now, in his capacity as columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Rove takes a look at President Obama’s apparent strategy for re-election in 2012.  His view is that, tactically, Obama is pursuing the same approach as Bush in 2004, but, strategically, following the advice that Richard Nixon, in and out of office, gave to Republican candidates: to run in the primaries in a way to strengthen support from the GOP faithful in the general election (which traditionally has meant adhering to a conservative line), then to run from a centrist position in the general election, to secure the independent vote (and some of the voters aligned with the opposing party, if those voters feel alienated by extreme positions from their own candidates).

But Rove believes that in Obama’s case, this approach – which, in Democratic terms, would mean appealing before the 2012 convention to the party’s left wing – will oblige the incumbent to adopt positions so far out of the American political mainstream that he will find it all the more difficult to get the independent and centrist votes in the general election.  As Rove puts it:

[…] Mr. Obama is making a mistake by following the advice of President Richard Nixon, who argued White House hopefuls must run to their party’s flank in the primary and tack back to the center for the general election. While Mr. Obama doesn’t face a primary challenge, the White House is worried about the intensity of the Democratic base and feels compelled to feed it red meat now.

This bit of conventional wisdom assumes two things. First, that ordinary voters aren’t paying attention now (they are). And second, that veering hard left in 2011 won’t limit Mr. Obama’s appeal in 2012 (it will). Many swing voters are repelled by the class-warfare rhetoric Mr. Obama uses to fire up the Democratic base. Appealing to envy is usually not a winning formula.

My guess is that, contrary to Rove’s speculation, Obama will face a challenge, at least from Rep. Dennis Kucinich, somewhat in the fashion that the late Rep. John Ashbrook, in the spring of 1972, contested the early Republican primaries against RN on behalf of the party’s right wing which was upset by the opening of relations with the People’s Republic of China. detente with the USSR, and such economic policies as wage-price controls and the end of the gold standard.

Ashbrook consistently got about ten percent in the races he contested, including the California primary, after which he dropped out.  It seems possible, at least to this writer, that Kucinich could do as well if he were challenging the incumbent on foreign policy, particularly if the NATO effort in Libya has not resulted in regime change in that country by the end of this year. 

To offset the dissatisfaction among the rank-and-file with aspects of his administration’s foreign policy and his failure to get much legislation passed beyond health-care, and because he is dependent on union efforts to generate voter turnout come November 2012, Obama will be stepping up the rhetoric for the next 14 months, as Rove says he will.  That would diminish opposition in his own party to some degree, but, indeed, would be a problem in the debates.  In 2008, his habitual caution had resulted in a rather scantly backlog of statements that could be used for “gotcha” moments when he was facing Sen. John McCain.  But in 2012 there will be plenty. 

And, as Rove notes, in tactical terms, Obama is following the example of Bush in 2004 rather than RN in 1972.  The President is hoping – indeed, has to hope – that although the economy will be nowhere near as prosperous as it was in ’72 and the rest of the period before the fuel crisis of October 1973 really sent inflation spiraling up, it will at least be at something approaching the level of the summer of 2004, when America had moved just far enough out of the 2002 recession that Democratic claims that it still existed were not persuasive enough for Sen. John Kerry to manage an upset.  But that may be wishful thinking.