Over the last few weeks I've heard several people bring up the following analogy in conversation, and Forbes made a headline out of it after the Florida primary: Mitt Romney is the John Kerry of The GOP. We will continue to hear this analogy throughout the election, which makes sense because 2012 is shaping up to be similar to 2004 in many respects. But how similar are they?
Although imperfect, the comparison works on levels beyond the superficial. The main characteristics they share in common are, in no particular order: great personal wealth that they're willing to blow against an incumbent, the generic "Looks like a president" physical characteristics (tall, white, full head of graying hair), the perception of aloofness stemming from their fortunes, and complete malleability on issues and ideological positions. They are the kind of classic, people-pleaser politicians who follow the general direction of the wind. They both fit stereotypes that their parties try to avoid – the Massachusetts Liberal and the Plutocrat.
They are both also the kind of person you nominate when the party doesn't have any good candidates. They both pass the "You'll Do, I Guess" test with flying colors. As long as the field is full of scrubs – the 2004/2012 analogy works well here – everyone gravitates to the tall rich guy who doesn't sound completely insane or have lots of baggage. Nobody wants to nominate someone like Kerry or Romney, but you have to nominate someone and Boring > Crazy in the hierarchy of default nominees.
That said, there are some key differences. Nobody in the Democratic Party had the kind of hostility toward Kerry that vast segments of the GOP appear to have toward Mittens. Most people found Kerry drab and, if anything, more liberal than the median Democrat. Romney, on the other hand, is treated as an impostor – "not a real conservative." Romney's religion also introduces an element into the campaign that was absent in 2004. Issue-wise, Kerry may have been "flexible" but he looks as dogmatic as the Pope compared to Romney. And despite the fact that they share great wealth, their means of acquiring it was different and, for Kerry, less controversial.
I think the overarching premise is valid, though more because of similarities between the elections than the candidates. We have an incumbent hovering at or slightly below 50% approval and subject to fanatical hatred from opposing partisans. The incumbent is vulnerable, if only the challengers could rustle up a decent candidate. Unfortunately they can't, so they go with the best of a poor field and hope that being Not Bush or Not Obama is good enough to motivate people to support their weak nominee. It isn't, and the relatively unpopular incumbent squeaks out a win in a low turnout election in which no one gets excited about anyone or anything.
Romney = Kerry isn't a bad analogy, but the key difference is Romney's lack of acceptance among key elements of the GOP base. I just didn't see that with Kerry. Democrats were severely ambivalent toward him as a candidate, yes. There was not the sense that he was a Fake Democrat, though, nor wings of the party talking about 3rd Party or independent candidacies to wage ideological war. It was a rare example of the disorganized Democratic Party uniting, and now with Romney, and to a lesser extent McCain, we see the usually lock-step GOP splintering into factions that can't agree about anything except Obama Bad.