WASHINGTON — A few months ago, I became convinced that the presidential election would turn on just one issue: the economy and the nation's sluggishness in growing its way out of the Great Recession of 2008. After all, history shows that, with the exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, no incumbent chief executive has been re-elected with the kind of steady, high unemployment rates we have sustained for nearly four years. The president's overall approval rating is becoming dangerously low.
It was my opinion that the two candidates — Barack Obama for the Democrats and Mitt Romney for the Republicans — could do very little to change the outcome, aside from one or the other committing a lethal political mistake.
In other words, I thought the electorate pretty much had made up its mind, either that Obama had performed acceptably at getting us out of the mess or that he hadn't and what we need is change, which the president promised but hasn't delivered. All Romney had to do was to keep the focus on the economy and convince enough independents and crossovers that he had the best chance of improving it, even if he wasn't someone with whom you'd like to have a beer or, in his case, a caffeine-free soft drink.
I began to change my mind in the wake of Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, architect of the controversial solution to control Medicare costs and a Catholic whose stance on women's issues follows pretty much what many female voters consider the anti-feminism of the church's bishops. I couldn't see how Ryan could help the ticket, even though he was more charismatic than Romney.
I thought women's issues might even supersede the economy as a turning point, thanks to Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, who's the GOP candidate for Senate. Akin allowed as how a ban on abortion should extend even to rape victims, most of whom, he argued, were protected from pregnancy because the trauma caused their bodies to shut down. Afterward, though Akin has had a close working relationship with Ryan and shares his views on the reproductive rights of women (which is to say, they have none), Ryan and Romney immediately jumped to disassociate themselves from such monumental ignorance. While the nitwit apologized, he refused to quit his campaign.
All this should be enough to overcome my original theory about the economy being the only thing that mattered, I figured. Then a spate of new polls in the last week seemed to show I was correct in the first place. Neither the debate over how to reform Medicare nor women's rights appears to have changed concerns about joblessness and all the other pocketbook problems. In fact, the race is skin tight, with a Washington Post/ABC News survey this week noting that 8 in 10 voters give the economy poor marks. Romney leads slightly — 47 percent to 46 percent — though white seniors oppose the Ryan Medicare reform plan nearly 2-to-1.
Can Obama survive such historically devastating opinion? Are the voters still willing to lay much of that blame on his predecessor, George W. Bush? Most experts agree the troubles all started with Bush. But Obama critics legitimately contend that the former junior senator from Illinois failed to take the right steps to get the economy back on track early, spending too much time, effort and political capital on revising the nation's health care system.
If the "George did it" crowd prevails, it would put to rest what used to be the operative political truism — simply that whatever happens on the incumbent's watch, good or bad, is his responsibility. History tells us that the adage is undeniable. The Great Depression wasn't Herbert Hoover's fault, but he was forever blamed.
When Election Day arrives, that adage may change.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.