“Character” is a word that Republicans used a lot in the 1990s, by which they meant President Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior. “At least,” my Republican mother said pointedly upon the election of George W. Bush, “he’s a man of character,” unlike the previous guy getting blow jobs from interns in the Oval Office. If their candidate for president this year should lose in November, it will be interesting to see to what extent Republicans understand that character is one of the reasons. As Governor Mitt Romney’s prospects grow more daunting, a view has emerged from the right that the problem is the political flaws and tactical missteps of the candidate and his campaign, in what Republicans insist to themselves should otherwise be a “gimme” election (to quote radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham). But the Romney Problem is more profound, and it’s one of character, not tactics.
Time was when the political woods were full of Joe Bidens—super-gregarious retail politicians who could yell themselves hoarse at one campaign stop about how the rich and powerful are screwing everybody over, then in the next town go all quiet and sincere and wring tears from even the toughest characters in the crowd. Those old-style pols lived to campaign, and they campaigned for their lives—especially back in the way-old days when political speechifying was a major form of entertainment in many parts of the country.
If there’s anything anyone remembers about the 2004 election, it’s the Bush campaign’s vicious attacks on John Kerry’s foreign policy record. From his Iraq War vote to his decorated service in Vietnam, the Bush campaign worked to tarnish Kerry’s bona fides and present him as someone unfit to lead the country during a time of war. By the end of the election, when the polls were still close, Team Bush was openly floating the idea that the United States would face a terrorist attack if Kerry was elected president.
The big story late last week, after the Democratic National Convention ended, was that President Obama had received a monster bump—Nate Silver put it at almost eight points—made all the more dramatic when compared to Republican challenger Mitt Romney's measley plus one. But Obama isn't the only one leaving the party in Charlotte on an upward path: a new poll today shows Elizabeth Warren pulling even with Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who she wants to replace in the Senate.
Mitt Romney is pro-baby, and he doesn't care who knows it! (Flickr/tvnewsbadge)
Every candidate confronts the question of how detailed they should be in their policy plans, and the basic calculation goes as follows: I want to seem substantive and serious, so it's good to have detailed plans, but I don't want the plans to be so detailed that they give my opponent something to use against me and allow voters to find things they don't like. So usually they find some middling level of specificity, and tolerate whatever criticism they get from one end for not being detailed enough, and from the other end for specific ideas people don't like. But rarely does the question of how specific you're being become a story in and of itself.
Mitt Romney has arrived at that moment, when his unwillingness to reveal exactly what he wants to do in a variety of policy areas is becoming a story in its own right. Here's Steve Kornacki writing about it in Salon. Here's the Wall Street Journal editorial page criticizing him for not being specific. Here's a TPM report on other conservatives scolding Romney for his vagueness. Here's an L.A. Times editorial asking for specifics on Romney's tax plan (which we'll get to in a moment. Here's an NPR story about the specificity question. And President Obama is picking up the issue and using it as an attack, which helps propel the story forward.
It's one thing to be vague because you think getting bogged down in a discussion of details will distract from your broader message, but it's another thing to be vague because a discussion of details will reveal that you're promising things you can't possibly deliver.
The Washington Postdescribes its latest poll as “virtually unchanged” from the one taken just before the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Among registered voters, in late August, the Post and ABC News found Mitt Romney with a slight lead over President Obama, 47% to 46%. In its post-convention poll, among likely voters, it finds an equally tight race with Obama slightly ahead, at 49% support to Romney’s 48%.
I don't think even the staunchest Republican would try to tell you that Mitt Romney's convention was more successful than Barack Obama's, and coming out of the two, it now looks like Obama has moved ahead of Romney by a few points. Whether this lead will solidify or the two will move back to being tied is impossible to know yet, but the most interesting question may be how the two campaigns react. I can predict pretty confidently that the answer for the Obama campaign is: they won't. As I discussed yesterday, if you're in the lead you have no reason to change anything you're doing, while if you're behind there's a powerful temptation to start casting about for something new to turn things around.
And one other part of this dynamic is that when you're behind, everybody in your party starts bellowing, both privately and publicly, that you have to immediately shift from the strategy you're employing to the strategy they are advising...
Practice makes perfect" is usually quite a dependable adage, but Mitt Romney seems to have made proving it false his political life's mission. The map of his second presidential campaign can be plotted from one amateurish move to the next. Flip-flops, flubbed lines, and flimsy arguments have rendered his candidacy a tower of questionable campaign tactics toppling under the weight of their own tangly deception.
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:
This weekend featured a strange event on the campaign trail. With Pat Robertson seated behind him at a speech in Viginia—that's the guy who says God personally warns him about upcoming world events, believes the September 11 attacks were divine punishment for homosexuality, and thinks feminism leads to witchcraft—Mitt Romney got his culture war on. Romney recited the Pledge of Allegiance and thundered, "The pledge says 'under God.' I will not take God out of the name of our platform. I will not take God off our coins and I will not take God out of my heart." So fear not, America: As long as Mitt Romney becomes president, your pennies and nickels will be safe from creeping atheism.
This may tell us more about Romney's strategy for winning Virginia—a state divided between a conservative, rural southern part and a liberal, suburban northern part—than it does about his strategy for winning the country as a whole. But when Romney makes such an appeal, it only serves to remind us how rare it is. Of course Romney's primary focus on the economy is dictated by conditions in the country, and the fact that an incumbent president struggling with unemployment over 8 percent really ought to be doomed. But it's also true that if there were potential customers for fist-shaking attacks about "God, guns, and gays," as the old Republican playbook had it, Romney would be moving much more aggressively to exploit that market. But he isn't, for one big reason: Liberals have won the culture war.
No reasonable observer could question that the Democratic National Convention outclassed the Republicans’ out-of-tune, mishmashy effort in Tampa. (Christie and Clint, need we say more?) Leaving aside poor dear Martin O’Malley, the Maryland governor who fumbled a prime-time opportunity to elevate his 2016 prospects, the headliners were sharp, message-coordinated, and (we’re talking about you, Michelle and Bill) sometimes flat-out brilliant. Maybe the Dems will end up with a bit more of a bounce than the Republicans.
There aren’t many Democratic politicians who can connect with white, working-class voters. But Bill Clinton, born and raised in Arkansas, and Average Amtrak Joe have the bona fide red, white and blue credentials and oratorical ease that makes them gifted salesmen of the Democrats’ vision. Wednesday night, it was Bill Clinton’s job to present a logical argument for why blue collar Americans should re-elect Obama. Last night, it was Joe Biden’s job to steal the hearts of these same voters, and although his efforts suffered from following in the footsteps of Bubba, Biden’s remarks were moving. Together, these two speeches serve as a potent argument for four more years.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—Now that the Democratic National Convention is over, both parties will move to take positions in the final phase of the 2012 election. Republicans have already launched their opening salvo, with a massive advertising buy of 15 spots in 8 states. Indeed, now that Mitt Romney is the official nominee, his campaign is finally free to spend a large chunk of the money it raised over the last four months. With the help of a poor August jobs report, the Republicans will continue to hammer President Obama over the weak economy, and try to drive undecided voters to their side.
The third and final night of this week’s Democratic Convention may have lacked the fireworks we saw on the first two. Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton were eloquent in different ways, and weren’t matched by Barack Obama or Joe Biden on the convention’s closing night. That’s not to say that the closing night wasn’t effective, however. By focusing above all on two of Obama’s decisions – to save General Motors and Chrysler and to send in the Seals to take out Osama bin Laden – Obama and Biden emphasized the two most politically potent contrasts, especially on the latter point, they could draw with Mitt Romney and used those contrasts to make their most telling attacks on Romney yet.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—When the economy is poor, an incumbent president has few options for reelection. If he looks back, he reminds voters of hardship. If he looks forward, he seems like he’s ignoring the problem. His only choice is to defend his record, and hit the other side for unfair attacks. It’s not an effective approach—voters don’t like it when the president pleads for fairness. Challengers have an easier task. As long as they can identify hardship and propose a plan that looks effective, voters will join their cause.