The Attack that Will Stick to Romney

Like Greg Sargent, I think Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch gambit will work in the general election (though not so much if he’s elected president). Yes, his rhetoric is identical in substance to that of his opponents, but through tone and demeanor, Romney has managed to keep his moderate credentials, and few people within the mainstream media have bothered to challenge them.

It’s for this reason that Romney won’t have to worry about the “flip-flopper” charge. No one actually believes that he’s as conservative as he’s portrayed himself in the primaries, and pundits are likely to accept the general-election permutation of Romney as the “real Romney.”

So, is there anything from the primaries that will stick to the former Massachusetts governor? At the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore argues that the flip-flopper charge might actually have wings, if Democrats hammer it home over the next seven months. John Sides crunches the numbers and finds that voters aren’t too receptive to the flip-flop argument. Indeed, they see President Obama as prone to flip-flopping. Where Romney is vulnerable, however, is on questions of empathy:

[W]hen people evaluate Obama more favorably than Romney on the flip-flopper dimension, they are also more likely to prefer Obama in a head-to-head match-up. But this apparent effect pales beside the effect of two other dimensions: cares about people like me and cares about the middle class. […]

These results—preliminary to be sure—suggest that people prioritize the candidates’ empathy more than their tendency to flip-flop. If the choice is between drawing Romney’s face on an Etch-a-Sketch or putting it on a $10,000 bill, I’d take the bill.

Greg Sargent points this out in his argument for why the Etch A Sketch gambit will work, but if you set aside his moderate instincts on social issues, it’s abundantly clear that Romney holds genuinely radical and extreme views on economic policy. His tax plan is centered on a massive cut to the capital gains rate—which amounts to a large tax cut for the wealthiest Americans—and his budget plan requires huge reductions in social spending and spending for poor and working-class Americans. He might protest to the contrary, but like Paul Ryan—whose budget he’s endorsed on multiple occasions—Romney wants to turn government into an income redistribution scheme for the rich.

If you’re looking for somewhere to attack Romney, this is it. If there were no other narratives about the former governor’s wealth, then you could probably bury these views with a few pleasant words about opportunity. But the fact is that Romney already struggles with a narrative that depicts him as a heartless plutocrat. His economic radicalism feeds into the stories around Bain Capital, “vulture capitalism,” and his tax returns, as well as the the general sense—spurred by gaffe after gaffe—that he is indifferent to ordinary Americans. Indeed, if Obama’s goal is to draw contrasts, then Romney is the perfect foil; a cipher for Wall Street, the 1 percent, and—in Obama’s words—“the failed policies of the past.”