Before 2008, there was a story I used to tell about how presidential campaigns have been waged over the last few decades. It goes like this: The Democrat comes before the voters and says, "If you examine my ten-point plan, I believe you will agree that my ten-point plan is superior to my opponent's ten-point plan." Then the Republican comes before the voters, points to the Democrat, and says, "That guy hates you and everything you stand for." It may not have applied to every election in our lifetimes (Bill Clinton was pretty good at running for president, you may remember), but it rang true enough that when I said it, liberals tended to chuckle and nod their heads.
That changed in 2008, when Barack Obama ran a campaign in both the primaries and general election that reflected a profound understanding that politics is much more about identity than issues. His opponent understood it too, but the statement of identity that a vote for McCain represented just couldn't garner a majority of the public at that moment in history.
So what kind of a statement of identity does a vote for Mitt Romney represent? That's a complex question, and it's one to which I'll return in the coming months. But I just wanted to highlight one thing, the way the Romney campaign is making a half-hearted attempt to reach out to Latino voters. According to the 2008 exit polls, Obama beat McCain by 36 points among Latinos, which is right about where polls show the current race between Obama and Romney. So what kind of advice is he getting from people in his party? Here's an article today in POLITICO:
"If you're looking at an electoral strategy, my sense is that we have got to be able to talk to women and minorities in ways they identify," [Eric] Cantor told POLITICO on Monday. "When you're looking at the independent voter, it is, in very kitchen table terms, ... about jobs and the economy. It's about whether there is going to be health care there, whether they're going to be able to make it through the month, in terms of their limited income in a very practical, results-oriented way."
He said Romney - and Republicans broadly - need to talk more about the opportunity that their party can give immigrants and minorities. "It is the message of opportunity, of actually chasing the American dream that appeals to everybody across demographic lines," Cantor said. "Because it's about the classic entrepreneurship of the country."
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a Mormon and conservative Hispanic lawmaker, said Romney needs to confront the issue of how he'll improve the economy head-on.
"What Romney needs to do is start talking about the economy and how it's affecting all Americans, including Hispanic Americans, African Americans and other ethnic minorities. Under Obama, more people are in poverty, more people are taking food stamps, more people are losing their jobs, more women are unemployed. If you look at every ethnic and gender group, people are suffering more than they did in other times in recent history. What Romney needs to do is go out there and make the case that Republican conservative policies are more fair for individuals, regardless of ethnicity or gender."
Mitt Romney and his Republican primary opponents just spent a year arguing over which one of them would crack down the hardest on undocumented immigrants, sending a clear message of antagonism to Latino voters everywhere, but now he should just tell them that Republican ideas will help the economy? In other words, the way to counteract those clearly hostile messages that were sent about identity is to just talk about issues. The Romney campaign itself is taking the same approach:
This isn't going to work. It's not that the message itself is problematic, but it's the same message Romney sends to everyone else: elect me because the economy is bad. Saying "the economy is bad for Hispanics" isn't anything different from saying the economy is bad for everybody. In fairness, I'm not sure what kind of identity message Romney could send at this point that would overcome the last few years of him and his party sending such relentless messages of hostility. But it's like they're barely trying. Which leads me to think that this is more about being able to say they're reaching out to Latino voters than about actually winning Latino votes.
Maybe they should have gone with the animated sombrero-wearing parrot.