Today there’s a piece by the Democrats (Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin) at POLITICO outlining the big strategy by President Obama’s re-election team.
Namely, that they’re going to attack Mitt Romney until they can beat him down and make him unelectable.
In a move that will make some Democrats shudder, Obama’s high command has even studied former President George W. Bush’s 2004 takedown of Sen. John Kerry, a senior campaign adviser told POLITICO, for clues on how a president with middling approval ratings can defeat a challenger.
“Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney,” said a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House.
The onslaught would have two aspects. The first is personal: Obama’s reelection campaign will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by Obama’s advisers in about a dozen interviews, “weird.”
This isn’t a major surprise, mind you. It’s almost a given that Obama’s record isn’t something he can run on. He’s got to go negative. And since Romney is the purported GOP frontrunner (at least for now), Obama will go negative against Romney.
What’s crazy, though, is that Obama’s people would be considering doing this now. First of all, it’s hardly a given that Romney would get the Republican nomination; in fact, a lot of people will tell you that when Rick Perry jumps into this race with both feet he’ll overcome the former Massachusetts governor in relatively short order. And if Romney doesn’t end up getting the GOP nomination every dime Obama has spent demonizing him is more or less wasted.
Second, going negative – personally negative – this far out seems awfully risky. Yes, negativity works in politics. But if what Obama has going for him is personal likability – which the POLITICO piece opens with, though I think much of that personal popularity comes from people being reticent to tell pollsters that they don’t like America’s first black president on a personal level – then what happens to that likability when Obama is seen as flinging mud for a year or more as part of his political campaign? You’re going to turn people off by doing that. Maybe a small number, and maybe you win by doing more damage to your opponent than you do to yourself.
You’ll have to be subtle and smart if you want to go negative over a long period of time – particularly if you don’t have Osama bin Ladens to knock off in an effort to inflate your approval ratings.
So how smart are Obama’s people? Well, here’s their thinking…
“First, they’ve got to like you, and there’s not a lot to like about Mitt Romney,” said Chicago Democratic consultant Pete Giangreco, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign. “There’s no way to hide this guy and hide his innate phoniness.”
A senior Obama adviser was even more cutting, suggesting that the Republican’s personal awkwardness will turn off voters.
“There’s a weirdness factor with Romney, and it remains to be seen how he wears with the public,” the adviser said, noting that the contrasts they’d drive between the president and the former Massachusetts governor would be “based on character to a great extent.”
Romney’s a bit plastic, there’s no question about that. One reason he’s failed to close the deal with the GOP electorate is that folks don’t really know what to make of him. Is he a super-pragmatic guy who doesn’t have any core convictions and just tries to do what works? Or is he a guy whose true beliefs and philosophy are way off the beaten track so he does what he can to hide them? There is definitely an opening for a candidate to attack Romney on that basis.
But Perry, or Michele Bachmann, or Tim Pawlenty (if he ever gets around to it) or Herman Cain can do that work for Obama’s people. Why would Obama do it for them?
Of course, the answer to that question is that Obama wants to prepare the battlefield. They’ve apparently made the determination that Romney is who they’re afraid of, probably due to polls indicating that Romney would beat Obama in a head-to-head matchup. So you do the work on Romney that the other Republicans might not have the resources or will to do on him, and if it works you engineer his demise in the primaries.
This strategy is a bit of a gamble, particularly if Perry follows through and joins the race. After all, if Obama spends, say, four months successfully attacking Romney and then Perry emerges as the frontrunner, how’s it going to look when Obama turns his guns on Perry? And won’t Perry be ready for it?
Those optics aren’t going to look so good. Unless, of course, Obama thinks Perry is so out of the mainstream (he’s won a string of statewide elections in Texas for two decades) that going on the attack against him isn’t necessary and he’ll leave him alone while running on more hope and change. I doubt that would happen, though I don’t doubt it would make for electoral suicide.
The second aspect of the campaign to define Romney is his record as CEO of Bain Capital, a venture capital firm that was responsible for both creating and eliminating jobs. Obama officials intend to frame Romney as the very picture of greed in the great recession — a sort of political Gordon Gekko.
“He was very, very good at making a profit for himself and his partners but not nearly as good [at] saving jobs for communities,” said David Axelrod, the president’s chief strategist. “His is very much the profile of what we’ve seen in the last decade on Wall Street. He was about making money. And that’s fine. But often times, he made it at the expense of jobs in communities.”
So Obama’s people also want to go after Romney for being a business guy. Think that’s smart? All Democrats seem to be doing these days is demonizing business people who get big tax breaks for running jobs to China, while trillions of dollars of capital sits on the sidelines.
Let’s say Romney does get the nomination. Conservatives aren’t sold on him because they think he’s a RINO, but obviously they’ll support him lustily simply because he’s not Obama. And you want to demonize him because he’s a capitalist? Who do you think the center in this country is going to go for, the moderate business guy or the neo-Communist who’s destroying the economy?
If you need help answering that one, you might want to inquire at Obama campaign HQ – they’ve got money and they’ll be looking for folks who tend not to think things through.
That Axelrod is so quick with a quote on that subject is instructive. This is, after all, a guy who made his bones in politics as a pimp for rent-a-mobs, so mobilizing “communities” is pretty much the prism through which he sees everything. Without knowing too much about Romney’s track record as a venture capitalist, one can imagine his firm may have invested in a company or two which streamlined its labor costs in order to become more profitable – and if the Obamites can find the specific evidence of that they’ll use it like it’s some kind of atom bomb against Romney.
If I’m Romney’s strategist, I’m lying in wait for the opportunity to answer that charge in the general election. Know what my answer will be? “Yep. We helped some of the folks we did business with find a way to get the most out of their payroll dollar, like any good business will do. Were some tough choices made along the way? Yes. It wasn’t fun, but Mitt and his people did what had to be done.
“And guess what? Put Mitt in the White House, and he’s going to do the same thing to all the waste and fraud in the federal budget – hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth. In other words, he’ll do his job as president – the same job that Obama has refused to do for the last four years. Now, who do you want to vote for?”
So far, Romney’s people have a little different tack on Obama’s strategy to target him.
“There’s so many wonderful ironies here: Obama spent his whole political career perfecting the best argument against Bush 43, and now he’s going to run as 43?” said Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, who also worked for Bush. “They can try anything they want — but this race is going to be about the economy.”
The Democrats laying the groundwork for this strategy are well aware of its echoes. In 2004, the polarizing incumbent and his allies successfully raised doubts about the character and fitness of another stiff, wealthy patrician politician from Massachusetts with attacks on his alleged “flip-flopping” and even his war record.
Here come the quotes about Romney’s flip-flopping…
“If you were to write the history of his political career, it would be called ‘Extreme Makeover,’” Axelrod said of Romney.
“What made the Bush people successful and made theirs a very smart strategy was that they pitted something deeply ingrained about Bush against something that they were trying to convince people of regarding Kerry,” said another top Obama adviser. “Specifically, they knew Bush was seen as stubborn but very firm in his beliefs. The opposite of that, of course, is not firm in your beliefs, and that’s how they portrayed Kerry from early on. It was a nice, sharp contrast.”
Obama’s team won’t portray the incumbent as stubborn but principled. Voters can expect to see a portrait of a president making the difficult decisions in tough times set against an opponent they’ll claim has bent, like the windsurfing Kerry, with the breeze. And they may do it before Romney has even formally wrapped up the nomination in the event he ends up on a glide path to the GOP nomination.
“When it’s clear we have an opponent in our eyes and in the eyes of public, we’re going to be in that discussion,” the Obama adviser said.
The thing is, Kerry didn’t get killed because of his flip-flopping. Kerry got killed because he’s a dumbass. The guy ran an entire campaign which made zero sense; he’d voted to authorize the Iraq war and then he ran against it, with something along the lines of an allegation that Bush had snookered Democrats like him into voting for a lie. In other words, I’m a gullible dupe so you ought to vote for me over that guy who duped me. Not exactly a compelling campaign narrative. That Kerry was an economically illiterate, unabashed statist whose record in the Senate was the most far-left in the body before Obama came along didn’t help. And the fact that he had clearly inflated his military record before turning into Jane Fonda with a longer chin in an effort to ride the anti-war movement into political office made him unelectable not because he’s a flip-flopper but because he’s basically a traitor.
That Kerry had some inconsistencies didn’t help him, mind you. But the inconsistencies weren’t his biggest problem by any means.
In Romney’s case, the inconsistencies will damage him with the Republican base. With the general public? Independents, who by their nature are generally wishy-washy about politics themselves, probably don’t think it’s all that big a deal if Romney vacillates on a few issues so long as he can define a few principles he’s resolute on. Admittedly, though, Romney hasn’t done a great job articulating those.
And then there’s this…
They don’t have a choice. Even Obama’s top aides don’t expect unemployment to be below eight percent when next November rolls around.
“When you have these difficult economic circumstances, everybody is going to have to make a choice,” said the Obama adviser. “We’re going to have to color both sides of that choice.”
In other words, the Obama folks are admitting they don’t deserve re-election – so they’ve got to smear their opponent. Charming people, no?
Back to Romney, we find some Beltway conventional wisdom mixed in with some pretty ridiculous pronouncements from the re-election team…
Romney, currently the front-runner for the Republican nomination, isn’t the candidate Democrats would most like to face. That honor goes to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, vocal conservatives who may not be able to reach swing voters. Romney’s moderate record as the one-term governor of a liberal state — the target of conservative rivals’ criticism — could also make him a strong general election candidate.
Obama officials, however, believe they’ll have more grist for their flip-flop line of attack after the primary because Romney will eventually have to veer right to convince the GOP base he can be trusted with the nomination.
“He’s going to take some unpopular, right-wing stands,” said an adviser. “That was one of the main things that hung McCain up — how he had to go through the nominating process.”
Democrats say it’s Romney’s decade-plus of political maneuvering to win a Massachusetts Senate seat, the governorship and the White House that collectively will be his undoing.
“There’s a question of public character,” said Axelrod. “Are you principled, consistent — are you who you say you are? Can you be counted on?”
Palin and Bachmann are both problematic 2012 candidates of sorts, it’s true – but for reasons not described in the POLITICO piece. Palin’s main difficulty comes from the two-year demonization program Obama’s media surrogates unleashed on her and from her decision, intelligent and prudent though it was on a number of levels, to quit as the governor of Alaska. And Bachmann’s problem is that while she has a terrific personal story to tell and while her convictions are unshakable, she’s missing a key resume item; namely, executive experience in running a large organization.
But the piece regurgitates the meme that Republicans can’t get a true conservative elected, and that’s typical stuff for POLITICO. It serves a number of constituencies to repeat that meme, of course, so it generally isn’t challenged. The GOP establishment likes it; they get to vet candidates based on “electability” because of it. And the Left loves it, because it produces Republican candidates who either don’t excite the 40 percent of the public they can generally take for granted (and thus lose) or who end up caving to Democrats on things like prescription drug benefits, price controls or tax increases. Smith and Martin like it because it allows them to discount that 40 percent who don’t share their assumptions as nuts.
But is it true?
Ronald Reagan was painted as exactly the same kind of unelectable Republican Smith and Martin are painting Bachmann and Palin, and he was the most popular and successful president in modern American history. Bill Clinton managed to last for two terms as a Democrat president, so you’d think Clinton would be the model for today’s Democrats, and yet he isn’t – Reagan is. They reference Reagan all the time, usually on things which have nothing to do with what made The Gipper successful and particularly on things which likely make him roll over in his grave.
Since Reagan we’ve had nothing but faux conservatives running as GOP nominees, and the ones who managed to win ultimately performed uninspiringly. And yet Smith and Martin would say that Romney is electable because he tends to the same mediocrity as a Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush. It’s a shaky contention at best. Romney might in fact be a better candidate than Palin or Bachmann, but ideological positioning isn’t what makes him that way. And of course, should Perry get into the race we’ll have an excellent test of the “electable” hypothesis.
What’s hilarious, though is the quote about how Romney, in order to get elected, will have to take some “unpopular, right-wing stands.” Really? What stands are those? After vacillating on abortion, Romney has come down on the pro-life side? That’s not unpopular; most presidents since Roe v. Wade was decided have been pro-life. Romney will go for a flatter tax code? That’s a winner. Romney will stress border security instead of amnesty for illegals? So does most of the country. Which unpopular right-wing stands is this unnamed Obama aide talking about?
And then Axelrod returns to talk about public character. This from the pilot of Obama’s 2008 campaign, so replete with lies, obfuscations and disingenuous posturing as to destroy any standards previously remaining in American politics. It’s enough to make you choke on your own breath.
Moving on, we find that it’s not enough to attack Romney as a flip-flopper.
The character attacks on Romney will focus on what critics view as a makeover, both personal (skinny jeans) and political (abortion).
“People already knew that he’s a political opportunist of the highest order — changing his positions to suit the day’s polling,” said Bill Burton, Obama’s former White House deputy press secretary who now heads Priorities USA, an independent group expected to lead Democratic attacks on the Republican nominee. “But the last couple weeks, this lack of principles has translated into a total lack of leadership on issues like the debt ceiling.”
Kinda like voting present, one supposes. Yes, the criticism of Romney’s timid leadership on the debt ceiling is valid, though to my taste it’s usually best for a presidential candidate not involved with negotiations like the one which produced that debt ceiling deal not to run around pontificating too much about what he or she would do. Better to lay down a set of principles or goals a deal should meet and then wait for the deal to judge it against those principles. Otherwise you’re injecting yourself into the negotiations without the ability to do anything positive therein. That’s not exactly what Romney did; he issued some tepid statements here and there and then hammered the deal more or less out of the blue after the fact.
That said, the last guy who should be throwing rocks on the debt ceiling issue is Obama. Observers on all points along the political spectrum have noted his absolutely nonexistent leadership on the issue, including his allies in the Democrat House and Senate leadership who had to deal with him. As for opportunism, let’s ask Rep. Paul Ryan, whose budget plan passed in the House would have prevented Friday’s S&P downgrade of the nation’s bond rating, what he thinks of Obama’s treatment of it after he was courageous enough to present it to the public. The chief practitioner of Mediscare has zero room to talk.
And finally, we plunge off the cliff into the abyss of American politics…
Democrats also plan to amplify what Obama strategists described as the “weirdness” quotient, the sum of awkward public encounters and famous off-kilter anecdotes, first among them the tale of Romney having strapped his dog to the roof of his car.
None of the Obama advisers interviewed made any suggestion that Romney’s personal qualities would be connected to his minority Mormon faith, but the step from casting Romney as a bit off to raising questions about religion may not be a large step for some of the incumbent’s supporters.
And Obama officials have made “weirdness” an epithet for Romney the way they tagged John McCain “erratic” in the fall of 2008 after the Arizona senator suddenly left the campaign trail and nearly backed out of the first debate as part of an attempt to get a deal on the bailout
“Presidential campaigns are like MRIs of the soul,” said Axelrod. “When he makes jokes about being unemployed or a waitress pinching him on the butt, it does snap your head back, and you say, ‘What’s he talking about?’”
“It’s not just a matter of dodging the debate, not just a matter of flip-flopping and putting his finger to the wind — it is that he’s not comfortable in his own skin, and that gives people a sense of unease,” added a Democratic consultant expected to be involved in the reelection campaign.
Finally, Smith and Martin identify what’s really going on here – namely, an appeal to religious bigotry. The Obama people can’t come out and say Romney can’t be President because he’s Mormon, for obvious reasons. Instead, they say he’s weird. Makes people uneasy. Not comfortable in his own skin.
All that stuff is meaningless without some context. If Romney was a run-of-the-mill Methodist or a lazy Catholic and Obama called him weird on the basis of a corny joke here or there, it would come off as the lamest attack in the history of American politics. It’s only because he’s a Mormon that Axelrod would bother to throw out such a wafer-thin charge. Cleverly done, too – there’s no reference to Mormonism, just a vague sense of unease about the guy that would only resonate if he belonged to some creepy religious sect.
Once again, the pot calls the kettle black. This from the camp of a man whose defense against charges that he was born a Muslim (according to Sharia he was, since his father identified himself as such) and raised at least part of his childhood as one is that he chose to attend a Christian church pastored by the toxic anti-American Rev. Jeremiah Wright for 20 years. If you’re Romney and Obama attempts to tar you for your religious beliefs, you would have carte blanche to revisit all of this stuff in a manner McCain was too craven to exploit back in 2008 – to the country’s great detriment, as it turns out.
Again, Romney’s chances of actually completing a victory in the 2012 GOP primary campaign are uncertain at best. But if the POLITICO piece accurately reflects the president’s re-election strategy, and there is little reason to question Smith and Martin’s accuracy so far, it’s highly instructive that the Obamites are planning such a noxious, destructive 2012 strategy.
Politics, particularly national politics, is a rocky shore with jagged edges. Nice people don’t last long in that game; that’s understood. But even by that standard, Axelrod and his fellows look at the same time ruthless, devious and, frankly not all that prudent. They will make for a rough time for Romney, however. His response to the Obama assault will tell the electorate a lot about the toughness, character and resolution the president’s men seem so lustily eager to challenge.