President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that the choice facing voters this November will be as stark as in the milestone 1964 contest between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater.
Does he really want to go there? Granted Johnson beat Goldwater by the biggest margin in modern politics but there are plenty of reasons that Obama should shy away from mentioning LBJ.
First, is this really as stark a choice as Obama claims? I would put it closer to 2000 when the far-left Al Gore ran on a soak-the-rich platform against center-right George W. Bush. Another apt comparison would be Carter and Reagan. That's the one that Obama wants to avoid at all costs. In 2000 Carter seemed clueless about the economy and helpless about Iran. Unable to run on his record, Carter ran an attack campaign warning about how bad things would become in Reagan was elected. It is too easy to draw parallels between Carter and Obama.
Second, Johnson did not run as a liberal against a conservative. He ran as a peacemaker against an intolerant war-monger who would get us into an unwinnable nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Remember the "Daisy" ad where a young girl is playing with a daisy until a nuclear bomb goes off? That ad was not about Medicare.
Casting himself as Johnson is risky for Obama. Yes, Johnson was one of the most liberal presidents ever. He expanded Social Security and created Medicare and Medicaid. All of those programs face financial crisis in the foreseeable future. Johnson also lied us into Viet Nam. His administration was marred by race riots and violent anti-war protests. No one who lived through that period wants to see it happen again.
Casting Romney as Goldwater is also problematical for the President. Few people remember much about Goldwater. Those who do are hard-core conservatives. They credit Goldwater with laying the foundation for the Reagan Revolution. Hard-core conservative/libertarians are almost as fond of Goldwater as they are of Reagan. Romney's biggest problem in the primaries was convincing the base that he is a true conservative instead of a moderate. It only helps him to be compared with Goldwater. In fact, I can't think of a presidential candidate this side of Reagan who would help Romney more.
Johnson in 1964 was a special case. Kennedy had been dead less than a year and the country was still in shock. Johnson's victory was equal parts sentimentality over Kennedy's legacy and worry over Goldwater as being too anti-communist. Four years later Johnson dropped out of the primaries when it became obvious that he was likely to lose.
Until now Obama has studiously avoided any comparisons with Johnson. It was probably a mistake to bring him up now.