Months ago when they became convinced that Mitt Romney would be the eventual Republican presidential candidate, Barack Obama’s campaign brain trust made a critical strategic decision. They decide to attempt to define Romney as an ultra-rich, ultra-out-of-touch corporate raider, the kind of guy who just isn’t like most Americans.
The Obama campaign and its Super PAC allies spent all summer, as the favorite catch phrase of politics now holds, advancing that “narrative.” We learned about Romney’s dealings at Bain Capital, his California house with elevators for his cars – a couple of Cadillacs – and his off-shore bank accounts. For weeks it seemed like Romney was playing right into the “narrative.” The pundits talked endlessly of the need to “humanize” the corporate CEO and Romney steadfastly refused to release any more than two years of his very well-to-do income tax returns.
The other “narrative” the Obama campaign could have chosen and didn’t was Romney the shameless “flip-flopper” – the guy who was for abortion rights before his was against them, the governor who did Mittcare before there was Obamacare, the guy who said setting a deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was a mistake before it wasn’t. We’ll know in a week whether the Obama strategic decision months ago was a wise one. Here’s a bet that it wasn’t.
The Denver debate where “moderate Mitt” emerged and grabbed the campaign momentum may well go down in presidential campaign history as the greatest single debate game changer ever. Romney skillfully, if some think shamelessly, remade himself before the very eyes of millions of American voters. He was no long the candidate who labeled 47% of Americans as unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives, but he became the smooth and comfortable former CEO with a five-point plan to remake the economy. Obama’s stumbling and inexplicable debate performance in Denver helped Romney re-set his campaign, but even cynic political professionals have to hand it to the former governor – he seems to have pulled it off his slide to the middle. He etch-a-sketched his campaign without even appearing to shake the red plastic frame.
The major reason, I think, Romney so completely re-set his image was that long ago strategic decision of the Obama campaign to paint him as Richie Rich, the evil corporate chieftain rather than as a John Kerry-style flip flopper. You may remember the crippling commercial the George W. Bush campaign ran against Kerry in 2004. With Kerry wearing loud, baggy swim trunks and changing direction while wind surfing, the closing line of that commercial was a masterpiece: “John Kerry – whichever way the wind blows.”
The Bush campaign in 2004 was smart enough and strategic enough to do what I’ll call the “Full Rove” on Kerry. They took the brightest page of Kerry’s resume – his Vietnam War service – and turned it into a liability. Kerry went from being a Silver Star winner with genuine foreign policy credentials to a long-haired anti-war protester who may not have been a hero after all.
The second half of the Full Rove was to label Kerry a serial waffler. This year, by contrast, the Obama campaign completed only half of the Romney “narrative,’ which has given the GOP candidate lots of room to shift and shape his positions to suit the slice of the electorate he is attempting to appeal to.
Say what you will about Romney’s potential as a president – and we may well get to find out how well that works out – there has seldom if ever been a major national politician who has so skillfully shifted his positions. By choosing not to go after the difference between Romney’s four years as governor of Massachusetts as his six years as a GOP candidate for president, the Obama team made it possible for Romney to bob and weave on the issues as skillfully as anyone ever has in such a high profile campaign.
Before this election – just ask John Kerry – the accusation that a candidate was an unprincipled flip flopper was often political kryptonite. Romney rarely has had to defend himself, because of the Obama strategic decision, against what was once consider indefensible in politics – shifting a position out of pure political expediency.
The other thing, I think, that the Obama troops got wrong was believing that the rich guy narrative was enough in and of itself to sink Romney. Obama, playing defense much of the fall, has not succeeded, and hasn’t really tried, to connect Romney’s corporate raider resume to the economic mess the country has endured for more than four years. In other words, the “narrative” lacks a clear and compelling bridge to what many Americans feel about this election – it’s all about the economy. As a result the economic debate has largely been all about Obama’s record and not about Romney’s barely defined approach to solving the problems in the economy and, not surprisingly, the polls show Romney winning on that issue.
Americans, it should be noted, also don’t automatically dislike a rich guy. Even the increasingly goofy Donald Trump gets a pass on that score. Most folks don’t dislike The Donald because he seems to be rich. They dislike him because he’s a publicity seeking blowhard.
Romney the rich guy with the five-point plan may well sneak in the Oval Office. Mitt the Shifter basically got a free pass. Obama’s strategic decision not to combine the out-of-touch rich guy attack with the serial flip flopper attack never gave the president the chance to say – “Oh, come on now governor…there you go again.”
Endlessly changing positions is ultimate about more than merely flipping and flopping, its about character and in politics character matters more than the size of your bank account.