Thursday, October 27, 2011

Romney's Flips, Obama's Flops

It’s hard to argue with Ed Kilgore’s thesis that Rick Perry’s prospects of securing the Republican presidential nomination turn on contrasting his steadfast conservatism with Mitt Romney’s ideological pliability.   Straight-laced conservatives in the Republican primary electorate remember all too well that Romney was for abortion rights and health care reform built around an individual insurance mandate before he was against them.  That’s why they’re still looking for an anti-Romney, even to the point of flirting at this late date with candidacies as improbable as Herman Cain’s and Newt Gingrich’s. 

Yet does that make it any less strange that anonymous campaign strategists advising Obama are planning to turn the inauthenticity of Romney’s conservatism to Obama’s advantage?  If you believe this Politico piece, that’s exactly what they’re doing:
“Obama supporters aren’t exactly coordinating attacks with Perry. But the Texas governor and national Democrats are reinforcing and amplifying a single, sharply negative message that benefits them both: that Romney is a soulless political opportunist who doesn’t deserve the presidency.  It’s a familiar attack that could resonate with voters in both the primary and general elections — and that strategists say can be delivered from the left and right with almost equal effect.”

Sorry, but this reeks of desperation.  Weren’t these same (unnamed) advisers bending our ears off about the craziness of “authentic conservatism” just a few weeks ago?  It’s not that one candidate in a general presidential election can’t score points by highlighting his opponent's inconstancy on important issues.  Remember how effective that 2004 Bush ad was showing John Kerry windsurfing, first in one direction and then in the other?  It did two vital things for Bush just when Kerry was starting to get traction exploiting the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war:  first, it reminded voters that Kerry had withdrawn his formerly unqualified support for the Iraq mission after Howard Dean outflanked him in the Democratic primaries and hadn’t been able to take a coherent position on the war thereafter; second, at a time when lots of voters were showing impatience with Bush’s stubbornness, the implied comparison with Kerry made Bush's determination to “stay the course in Iraq” look like morally admirable resolution.

Bush wouldn’t have secured either benefit, however, if voters’ memories were as short as Kerry was hoping they were.  Bush was counting on voters to remember when the war had been so popular that Kerry didn’t dare oppose it and how resolutely Kerry had extended his finger into the wind ever since.  Judging from the election results, a lot of voters hadn’t forgotten.

You won’t have any trouble convincing me that Romney is unusually flexible when it comes to ideological commitment.  But the notion that Obama can traffic on the implied comparison between his steadfastness and Romney’s inconstancy makes sense only if voters have forgotten just about everything that happened before about the 1st of September. That was about the time, you’ll recall, that Obama started impersonating Harry Truman giving hell to a do-nothing Republican congress.  

The summer before that, however, liberals were saying substantially the same thing about the president that conservatives are now saying about Romney because Obama was insisting that he wasn’t going to let liberal dogma get in the way of a grand budget deal that would put us back on the road to fiscal solvency.  The winter before that he was the guy who, just having capitulated to the extension of the Bush tax cuts for people in the upper brackets, proposed a budget that studiously ignored the recommendations of the bi-partisan debt commission he’d appointed just the summer before in response to the urgent challenge of a ballooning deficit.  I could keep going, but you get the point.

The idea that Obama, of all people, can make political hay out of Romney’s ideological flexibility could only have occurred to a political consultant under the illusion that he can frame the day’s issues adroitly enough to wipe away the past. Yet the fact that lots of swing voters don’t make up their minds until shortly before an election doesn’t make them amnesiacs. 

Give swing voters enough credit to imagine that they decide which presidential candidate to vote for in roughly the same way they make other reasonably important decisions.  Suppose you know you’re going to have to buy a new car in a year’s time.  But, having better things to do now, you have neither the time nor the inclination to decide immediately what car to buy.  Moreover, you know that new models might come out and that material information may be revealed about the old ones before a decision has to be made.  The reasonable thing to do under the circumstances, I submit, is neither to put cars entirely out of your mind nor immediately embark on an intensive study of alternative models.  It’s only sensible to start filing away information you regard as relevant as it comes your way in a physical or mental folder with the idea that you’ll pull it out, and inspect its contents more closely, when it’s time to make a decision.

Apparently, people around Obama have persuaded themselves that there aren't any such folders lying around at the back of many voters' minds.  I guess that's what you have to believe when you've decided that your candidate can't run on his record.

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