The Search for Plan B

Birth control is the political topic du jour with right-wing aspersions on loose women and nostalgia for the golden age of 1950s Mad Men sexual politics. But step back from this particular story and you see what may be the story of the 2012 campaign: The Search for Plan B.There are many forces behind the changing trend in the polls over recent weeks — pivots for the president on jobs, the payroll tax cut fight, etc., Mitt Romney’s endless string of gaffes, 15% tax rates and the like. Behind all of them though are clear indications — in macro-economic metrics and people’s experience — that the US economy is rebounding.

Nowhere is this seen more clear than in the rapidly closing gap between the President’s approval and disapproval ratings on the economy …

For roughly a year the premise behind both party’s 2012 campaign plans was the idea that there would be no substantial or publicly meaningful improvement in the economy ahead of the 2012 election. (The contrary assumption through much of 2010 is what kept some more serious candidates out of the race.) That meant that an Obama reelection depended on a terribly hard fought campaign and a deeply flawed Republican opponent and maybe enough meager improvement on the economic front to squeak through. Even then it would be a near-run thing.

Some people point out that even if President Obama goes into November with an 8% unemployment rate that’s still basically awful. Yet there’s a lot of history showing that the trend rather than the absolute state of the economy is what’s decisive in a president’s election chances.

So what’s Plan B?

Benjy Sarlin’s piece today in TPM points to Republican efforts to redirect the campaign on to social issues. That’s why Republicans glommed so fast on to the birth control issue. There was some level of genuine policy concerns. And polls showed that to the degree the issue could be framed as an issue of religious freedom (and not hop off the rails into sex-shaming), it did cut in significant ways in Republicans’ favor, at least before President Obama’s ‘accommodation’ announced last week. But the driver was less its power as an issue as the urgency to find Plan B.

To me, the move to remake the 2012 race around social issues seems like a counsel of desperation. The interesting split in my mind is the split between Republicans who really think this is a winning issue vs. those who simply see that it’s the only alternative in an improvement economic climate.

With a weak candidate (pretty certain) and a rebounding economy (increasingly likely but far from certain), Republican prospect seem substantially less promising than they were even late last year. Which brings the big question back to the search for Plan B. What is it?