You may have noticed that the Romney campaign has gone through a couple of different core critiques of President Obama. First, they said he was a nice guy who was in over his head. Then they decided that they don't actually think he's a nice guy after all, but instead he's a crypto-communist who despises free enterprise and hates entrepreneurs. Now they may be reverting to the old message again. The Obama campaign looks much different. Very early on, they decided—presumably because their polling and focus groups told them this was the right approach—that they were not going to attack Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper, despite the fact that this attack has been effective against other politicians in the past, and Romney is without question the flippy-floppiest party nominee in American political history. Instead, they argue that Romney believes the things he says and only cares about helping the wealthy. While every once in a while you hear an insufficiently prepared Obama surrogate call Romney a flip-flopper, for the most part they stick to the plutocrat attack. That's message discipline, and all winning campaigns demonstrate it.
But David Karpf makes an interesting point about this. He argues that it isn't that message discipline wins campaigns, but that if you're winning, you can afford to have message discipline:
Remember when the knock on Mitt Romney was that he's an unprincipled flip-flopper? That seemed like it would be at the very least one foundation of the campaign Barack Obama would run against Romney, if not the primary foundation. It's a potent attack, and there may never have been a candidate more vulnerable to it than Romney. Yet aside from passing remarks here and there, we don't hear much about flip-flopping from Obama and his surrogates anymore.
Instead, it's going to be all money, all the time. Or to put it another way, the Obama campaign's central message will be that Mitt Romney is an out-of-touch rich guy who spent a career screwing ordinary people in his endless lust for profits, and now wants to be president so he can continue to screw ordinary people and reward his rich friends.
(Ralph Alswang/Center for American Progress Action Fund)
In many ways, the 2012 presidential election looks a lot like the one in 2004. A divisive incumbent in a polarized electorate faces a surprisingly strong challenge from a lackluster politician against the backdrop of a stagnant economy. Like John Kerry, Mitt Romney is a Massachusetts-based candidate with a reputation for serial inconsistency, who lacks the full-throated support of his party’s base. And like George W. Bush, Barack Obama is running a campaign that highlights his strengths as a leader and portrays his opponent as untrustworthy and unprincipled. To wit, here is what Obama said in an interview with an NBC affiliate in Ohio:
Barack Obama prepares to feast on Mitt Romney's entrails. (Flickr/Barack Obama)
Campaigns often feature a division of labor when it comes to speaking about the candidate's opponent, one in which the candidate makes polite but firm criticism, while the surrogates (campaign staff, other elected officials) say much harsher and more personal things. A good campaign makes sure that the two proceed along the same thematic lines so they reinforce one another, but the fact that the candidate himself is more genteel in his language is supposed to preclude a backlash against him for being too "negative." Frankly, I've always thought this is overblown, particularly the strange custom whereby it's deemed a bit unseemly to refer to your opponent by name, such that saying "Mitt Romney is a jackass" would be horribly uncouth, but saying "My opponent is a jackass" is somehow more acceptable.
As the campaign goes on, however, this protocol is observed less and less, and the comments the candidates make take on a harder edge, beginning to resemble the comments their staffs make. It seems we may be entering a new phase, as witnessed by this:
I just want to elaborate on a point I made in passing in my column today about Mitt Romney's complex ideological dance. When it became clear that Romney would indeed be the Republican nominee, people began speculating about how he would execute the "move to the center" that every nominee must undertake, since in the primaries you're appealing to your party's base, while in the general election you have to appeal to independents. It's particularly tricky for Romney, since every time he switches positions on something people are reminded that he switches positions on things a lot, and that gives Democrats the opportunity to remind everyone of his flip-flopping past.
So has Mitt managed to find a way out of this dilemma? I think he has.
Mitt Romney applauds Dan Quayle for some reason. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
In the last week or so, a number of commentators have begun to debate whether the Obama campaign should paint Mitt Romney as an ideological extremist or as an inveterate flip-flopper. Bill Clinton is apparently advising that the answer should be "ideological extremist." But the real answer is, "Yes!" There's no reason Mitt Romney can't be a spineless, pandering flip-flopper who is also in thrall to the extremists in his party. One is an argument about who he is (flip-flopper), and the other is an argument about what he'll do (all kinds of horrible extremist things). There isn't a contradiction. And as Jonathan Bernstein tell us congressional Democrats are getting ready to lend the president a hand by forcing a whole bunch of votes designed to make Romney choose between taking a position widely popular with the general electorate and taking a position that will satisfy his party and his base:
The latest ad from the Obama campaign is a web video, so it won’t receive much traction among the population at large, but it does provide an interesting glimpse into how the campaign will attack Mitt 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.
Yesterday, I wrote a post sticking up for Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom on the whole Etch A Sketch thing. But in the 24 hours since, it has only gotten bigger. It isn't, we should be clear, "taking on a life of its own," because saying that is a way of excusing the individual decisions involved in the growth and spread of a meme like this one. The fact is that actual people—Romney's primary opponents, Democrats, and reporters—are making the choice to drop the Etch A Sketch comment, and what it is supposed to represent, into discussions, speeches, news stories, and ads. And at this point it's looking more and more like this is a metaphor that's going to stick around. Why? Let me offer some suggestions.
When this campaign started a year or so ago, a lot of people said that whatever his virtues, Mitt Romney simply could not become the presidential nominee of the Republican party, for one reason above all others: health care. He had the misfortune of having passed a popular, successful plan to reform health insurance in Massachusetts, only to watch a nearly identical plan become, in the eyes of his party, the most abominable freedom-destroying monstrosity since the Alien and Sedition Acts. Many smart people thought there was just no way Romney could get past it.
Yet here we are, in the wake of Super Tuesday, and Mitt has a healthy delegate lead. No one seriously believes that he isn't going to be the nominee. Throughout this race, health care has certainly been an irritant for him, the cause of many an unpersuasive explanation and absurd protestation. But it hasn't stopped his march to the nomination. The problem Mitt now has is that health care is about to go from being a primary election problem to being a general election problem. And Rick Santorum is going to make sure it happens...
It looks increasingly likely that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for president, so the Obama campaign needs to decide just how they are going to eviscerate him. As the New York Timesasks, "Do they go the out-of-touch, protector-of-Wall-Street route or the flip-flopper route?" The consensus from the smart people they talked to seems to be that painting Romney as overly conservative is the way to go.
Although the first vote has yet to be cast, conventional wisdom has it that the primary race is down to two candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Since both Romney and Gingrich have changed positions on issues large and small in recent years, it seems all but certain that whoever the nominee is, next fall's campaign will feature extended charges and defenses around the idea of flip-flopping. We'll hear about which flips were flopped, which flops were flipped, and what each says about the character of the flopper. So before that gets started in earnest, it’s worthwhile to step back and ask just what a history of position changes is actually supposed to tell us about a candidate, and what insight such a history might—or might not—offer to a presidency.
Now that Newt Gingrich is the Republican front-runner (I know, it still sounds like a joke, but it's true), people are starting to pay attention to the fact that if you go through his public statements, you'll find as many changes of position as you will for any other candidate, including Mitt Romney. Some of these are in-the-moment howlers, like the time he assailed President Obama for not imposing a no-fly zone on Libya, then when Obama did just that a few days later, Gingrich assailed him for doing it. Others are position changes familiar to other candidates, like acknowledging and then denying climate change, and supporting and then opposing an individual mandate in health insurance.
The Democratic National Committee is out with a new ad targeting Mitt Romney for his ideological…flexibility. The 30 second clip will run on cable and broadcast stations in several swing states – Virginia, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania – as well as Wisconsin. Here it is:
There is a longer, 4-minute web-only version that’s equally devastating in outlining Romney’s willingness to change positions for narrow political gain.
Had you asked Mitt Romney a year ago how he would have liked the pre-primary period of the 2012 presidential election to play out, he probably would have said something like this: First, I'd like to be widely assumed to be the inevitable nominee. Then, I'd like to have a series of candidates emerge, capture public imagination for a few weeks or so, and then flame out spectacularly. It's OK with me if some of them move ahead of me in the polls briefly, if they come under the harsh glare of the media spotlight, then whither and die. It doesn't even matter if they all actually get in the race, so long as they take up all the oxygen one by one until they implode, all while making sure as few people as possible are paying attention to the reasons they don't like me.