Philip Klein Is Just Wrong

Yesterday a piece by Philip Klein at the Washington Examiner about how Barack Obama is winning the general election set off some ripples in the blogosphere…

The general election unofficially began nearly a month ago, and so far President Obama is winning.

This has nothing to do with poll numbers. Sure, Obama enjoys a statistically insignificant 3.7 percent edge over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney in an average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics, and several analyses give the president a bigger advantage when it comes to the Electoral College. But every honest observer knows that polling will only become meaningful in the fall.

It’s been widely agreed that given Obama’s vulnerabilities, Romney’s chances of winning hinge on his ability to make the election a referendum on Obama’s record. And here is where Romney is failing. His campaign is allowing the president to change the subject.

Though the general election won’t begin in earnest until September, after both Romney and Obama have formally accepted their respective parties’ nominations, it effectively began when Rick Santorum suspended his presidential campaign on April 10.

Since that time, three stories have dominated the political news cycle. The first came when Hilary Rosen, a Democratic operative, said Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life.” The next came when the Romney campaign promoted a Daily Caller story recounting that Obama had eaten dog as a child in Indonesia. The most recent came as Obama decided to spike the football before the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing, releasing an ad suggesting Romney wouldn’t have made the same call.

In all of these cases, the Romney campaign has taken the bait, reacting to whatever Team Obama has decided to make an issue.

Klein goes on to gripe that by allowing Obama to make the election about everything but his record, Romney is losing. That this election has to be about the economy and Obama’s management of it, or else Obama is going to win.

He’s wrong, for four reasons.

First, the public knows this election is about the economy and the budget and Obama’s management record. Everybody gets that. And they also have inklings, if not an actual understanding at this point, that Obama isn’t doing a particularly good job on those fronts.

But the idea that you’re going to run a campaign in which economics is all you talk about for six months is a foolish one. Economics is dry, boring stuff – regardless how passionate people might get about it. And the more detailed you get as a candidate in talking about the same subject for six months, the worse you’ll do as a conservative. A lefty candidate can come up with a new way to promise free stuff and thus pander to his constituency groups with every sunrise; conservatives have a lot simpler and more realistic message.

Of course this election is about the economy and the size of government and how Obama is killing the country with federal overreach. But people want distractions, and the other side needs distractions. So there are going to be distractions.

Ace Of Spades had an excellent take on this, while insisting that he doesn’t know if Klein is right or not…

I get what Klein is saying, but the media sets the national conversation at Obama’s direction. Yes, I agree with him that the Optimal Option is to focus on precisely what we wish to focus on — but is that option actually on the table?

I’m also reminded of football. Or boxing. Or any sport. Yes, we might have a plan. We would prefer to execute that, and only that. But the opponent has a plan too, and we also have to react to the opponent’s moves.

So the fact that the Romney camp has been willing to talk about more than that Obama is killing the economy isn’t “playing into Obama’s hands,” it’s showing that Romney’s camp isn’t as boring as they’ve been sold to be.

Second, if there are going to be distractions, by all means let’s have them in April and May rather than October. It’s early. You can’t win the election now, you can only lose it.

Who do you think is doing a better job of losing the election right now?

Klein identifies three distractions that have dominated the news while the economy is clearly rolling along the sea floor. The first was the War On Women/Hilary Rosen mess, the second was the Obama Eats Dogs controversy and the third was over Obama spiking the ball on killing Osama bin Laden.

Bear in mind, none of these stories have played out in Obama’s favor.

The War On Women was clearly a major Democratic strategic effort aimed at putting Romney and every other Republican running on the defensive. It was launched with Sandra Fluke’s flaky testimony at Nancy Pelosi’s press conference-cum-Congressional hearing, flowered after Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and then faded and died when Republicans brought up Bill Maher, whose misogynistic attacks on Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann dwarf anything Limbaugh said about Fluke, and the million dollars Maher gave to Obama’s Super PAC, when it was revealed that women make 18 percent less in Obama’s administration than men do, and when Hilary Rosen put a stake through it by attacking Ann Romney as someone who “never worked a day in her life.”

Just like that the Democrats found themselves faced with the unhappy prospect of a broken meme; because whatever value the Republican War On Women might have after Rosen’s outburst paled in comparison to the Democrats’ War On Stay-at-Home Moms. And while it may have been possible to lump all women into the same category of abused-by-Republican-policies before Rosen came along (unlikely, but bear with me here), once she went after Ann Romney we now have a bifurcation between married women who would lean toward defending the Republican candidate’s wife and – whom? Single women not aspiring to be mothers?

Meanwhile, polls showing a nine percent differential between Obama and Romney with women showed a 14-point differential between Romney and Obama with men. If anybody has a gender gap problem it’s Obama, a fact which hasn’t been adequately analyzed for obvious reasons.

For Romney’s part, he parlayed the entire War On Women meme into a redirect to the economy. Romney repeatedly on the stump made the accusation that 92 percent of the jobs lost in the Obama depression were lost by women.

Next came the Dog Wars, which were an uncommonly silly distraction but a highly useful one. Obama started this fight by attempting to make hay out of a 1983 road trip the Romneys took to Canada, in which the family Irish setter rode in a crate on the roof of the car. This was somehow damning evidence of Romney’s cruelty to animals and great fun for the Obamites – until somebody decided to pore through the first of the president’s autobiographies and found out that he cheerfully copped to eating dogs as a child in Indonesia. Obama’s voice on the audiotape version of the book fueled the fire even more, and before you knew it the Obama Eats Dogs counterattack went national, completely dwarfing Seamus-on-the-roof. It got so bad for Obama that he himself was telling jokes about eating dogs at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner – a smart move in an effort to diffuse the effect of the hit, but a capitulation nonetheless. We won’t hear any more about Romney’s road trip to Canada anymore.

And the third distraction is still playing out. Obama made a massive show of celebrating the one-year anniversary of the successful hit on Osama bin Laden, going so far as to give an address to the nation from Bagram Air Force Base at four in the morning local time. And while he was certainly entitled to mark the occasion and his involvement in giving the order to get the world’s most wanted man, Obama went overboard by making the insinuation that executing an action some 10 years of American security policy had been geared toward was something only he – not Romney – would have done.

Romney’s response, which Klein says was petty, was an off-handed remark in answer to a question that “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.” Why that was petty will need to be explained; it was historically accurate in that Carter gave the order to attempt a rescue of the hostages in Iran but wasn’t successful; Obama’s raid on Abbottabad had different results, largely because of decades of investment in military capabilities Obama is in the process of trying to gut. And had the attack to get bin Laden not been successful we wouldn’t hear a word of its anniversary.

Meanwhile, on Mike Huckabee’s show on Fox News tomorrow there will be a host of Navy Seals weighing in on Obama’s actions in touting his role on the bin Laden hit – they’re not happy about his “spiking the ball,” and they feel like he’s taking credit for somebody else’s hard work. There’s also an ad making the rounds which is devastating to the president on his using the singular to describe the raid.

The Democrats are likely to respond to the pushback by claiming that it’s “Swiftboating,” and that’s going to be a mistake. The left feels like the “swiftboat” campaign against John Kerry in 2004 was a dirty trick, but the fact was that Kerry was swiftboated because he claimed to be a military hero when in fact he was anything but, and the people who actually did the things Kerry claimed to have done refuted his characterization of his Vietnam experience. The American people saw that Kerry-as-Audie Murphy was a fraud, and voted accordingly. It’s not a good idea for the Obama camp to bring up swiftboating this time, as there are inconvenient parallels for the public to see – particularly if Obama ends up with Navy SEALS by the dozen coming out against him and decrying his credit-taking.

So while these might be distractions from what Klein thinks is Romney’s strength, the third reason he’s wrong is that Romney has won, or is winning, each of the three in the end. And in doing so he’s demonstrating that Obama can’t run a campaign based on Shiny-Object-Of-The-Week when he loses even on the minor issues of his choice.

Particularly when Romney has continuously addressed these distractions by acknowledging them and then quickly pivoting back to the economy.

Fourth, Klein says in his closing that…

If the campaign is about bin Laden, identity politics and silly controversies about dogs, an Obama victory is a lot more likely. To seize control of the campaign, instead of merely being reactive, Romney has to put Obama on the defensive about his own record.

That’s just inaccurate. If Romney can put Obama on the defensive about eating dogs he can put him on the defensive about anything. Based on what hit the internet yesterday, Romney can put Obama on the defensive about wearing skirts or imaginary girlfriends. And since you can’t talk about economics for six months straight, doing so serves a clear purpose. After all, one of the memes being pushed by the media now is that Obama is hip and cool and a fun guy while Romney is a square/Mormon/Ward Cleaver throwback. The background of that meme is likability and charisma, and the idea that Obama has it and Romney doesn’t. This has been attacked by Romney’s camp on the basis that “cool” is ruining the country, which is a valid attack, but engaging and winning distractions like Obama Eats Dogs and Obama Spiked The Ball is equally valid.

If Obama’s sycophants want to stress that he’s more fun and more cool and more charismatic and somehow this means he’s a better president than Romney would be, there is nothing wrong with fighting on that turf in an effort to challenge it and insert in the public mind that maybe this guy is actually a dick, y’know? Because if the public thinks of Obama as somebody who seems like a good guy on the surface but is actually a cynical, shameless liar who doesn’t give a damn about the country because he’s never felt like part of it and has designs on making it something the rest of us don’t want it to be, they’re less likely to listen to Obama’s promises and excuses about the job he’s doing.

That Klein doesn’t see this shows a rather myopic view of what this – or any other presidential campaign – is about.

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