Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mitt Pandering = Electoral Waterloo

President Nixon is generally credited with the observation that to win the Presidency, a candidate must lock down his base during the primary season and then tack to the center for the general election.  For whatever his ethical shortcomings, Nixon was a shrewd evaluator of the electorate and a hugely successful politician even though he nakedly abused his power and resigned in disgrace.  His axiom of moderating one's positions between the primaries and the general election is now taken as a political article of faith among the commentariat and with particular applicability this year, when the presumed Republican front-runner is showing an enormous amount of weakness among the most conservative elements of the party whose support he needs to win their nomination. 

It is unsurprising that Nixon would take such a cynical view of the American people.  His strategy assumed that our citizenry is ill-informed, easily malleable and would blithely ignore what candidates say to get elected and to a large degree he turned out to be right[1]. In recent times, George W. Bush campaigned as something called a "compassionate conservative" and then went on to preside over the most toxic combination of regulatory malfeasance, economic redistribution to the wealthy and war mongering in our nation's history.  Of course, had anyone looked past the catchy slogan they would have seen his lazy form of governing on stark display in Texas and that he had surrounded himself with a cabal of neo-cons with a major hate boner for Saddam Hussein, but hey, why expect the American people to actually learn about candidates when all we care about is whether we want to drink a beer with them? 

Indeed, it is hard to fault politicians for lying to the electorate.  For every voter who claims to want to be told the truth, we can point to a Walter Mondale, who had the temerity to say that he would raise taxes and got crushed by President Reagan, who, after he got re-elected …wait for it… promptly raised taxes[2].  Al Gore talked about putting the Social Security surplus in a much maligned "lock box" so that the trillions that had accumulated would be there for the baby boomers and was cruelly mocked for that idea.  Meanwhile, George W. Bush took a hammer to that piggy bank, gave huge tax cuts to the rich and accelerated borrowing to pay for 2 wars, an expansion of Medicare and even more tax cuts.  Cut to 2008, a Great Recession, an aging population and well, we've lived through the rest of that story. 

Obviously, our culture has changed significantly since Nixon first won the Presidency in 1968.  Had cable networks and the Internet existed at that time, one can only imagine the ridicule some of Nixon's more famous attempts at authenticity would have received - the famous photo with Elvis in the West Wing or walking the beach in his wing tips would have been met with scorn and derision.  Or it wouldn't.  The lens through which you view politics today is self-selecting - 40 years ago, there were newspapers with acknowledged slants either "left" or "right," but by and large, the consumption of news was filtered through august reporters and journalists like Walter Cronkite, Jules Witcover and others who, we know now, did a fair amount of self-editing of stories they deemed unworthy of the public's consumption (think JFK's womanizing). 
On the other hand, while the Internet can quickly make a photo or gaffe "go viral," on a more substantive level, it exists as a video and audio repository for a candidate's statements, which is why Mitt Romney is in a deep pile of doo doo if he ends up winning the Republican nomination.  Romney's problem is actually two-fold: First, in his zeal to win the nomination, he has taken policy positions that are diametrically opposed to his prior positions; and second, he’s running against a President for whom opinions of the electorate are largely set.

To his first problem, because Romney has been running for office for the better part of twenty years, a vast library of his flip flops from his Senate run in 1994, through his gubernatorial race in 2002, his first Presidential campaign in 2008 and today, exists, it's just that none of his Republican foes have had the money, organization or resources to effectively hit him on these points and amplify them into a broader narrative of his lack, as David Axelrod so aptly put it, a core.  That will not be a problem for President Obama's campaign, whose sophistication, deep pockets and advertising muscle will effectively paint Romney not only as a flip-flopper, but in his current iteration, someone who is supportive of "personhood" amendments, limiting access to birth control, and passing tax cuts that greatly benefit the rich. 

Obama’s ability to advertise and message will not just be damning at 30,000 feet, but rather, in the microtargeting his campaign will be able to do in places like Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, where Romney’s rightward shift on immigration will not sell, in the suburban clusters of Northern Virginia and the Philadelphia suburbs where Mitt’s calls to defund Planned Parenthood and eliminate Title X will make him a pariah, in the retirement communities in Florida where embrace of Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare as we know it[3] will kill him with seniors and those nearing retirement, and in Michigan and Ohio, where four simple words “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” will speak louder than the millions in commercials Romney’s campaign will run trying to explain why he was against the government bailout of GM and Chrysler.

And in this way, the vise grip around Romney will tighten.  Sure, Mitt will win states in the general that he lost in the primaries, like Alabama and Mississippi, but any Republican would win those states.  His Waterloo will occur in the swing states where his primary season strategy of moving right will redound to Obama’s benefit come the fall. The box Romney will be in offers no easy outs.  If he follows Nixon's tacking strategy, he will reinforce in the minds of suspicious conservative Republicans that he is not to be trusted and thus, may dampen turnout by those who are more willing to, as I pointed out a few weeks ago[4] and had amplified more recently by George Will, wait out this election, try to limit Obama in his second term and wait for 2016.  On the other hand, if Romney does not break with the conservative orthodoxy he has espoused thus far, he will turn off the independent voters he will desperately need to beat the President.  In short, because he failed to run authentically, he has now created the conditions for being foisted on his own petard.

Romney's second problem is that attacking the President is a strategy of diminishing returns.  The American people have had the last 3 plus years to make their judgments about him, both good and bad.  How many more votes are there to be mined by screaming about Obamacare, the auto bailout or Solyndra?  Even more troublesome for Romney is that the death of Bin Laden, the withdrawal from Iraq and the killing of most of the Al Qaeda leadership leaves him little room to criticize the President on foreign policy, except to sound like a jingoistic chicken hawk on issues like Iran or North Korea, places where Obama’s sobriety and thoughtfulness are most appreciated by most Americans.

Ultimately, Romney will be left with an increasingly difficult economic argument - that even though things are now better, they would have been EVEN BETTER if he had been President.  Proving this is impossible and strips away the core rationale for Romney's campaign - that he is an economic Mr. Fix-It.  No longer needed, but thanks for playing. 

And this is why tacking is no longer effective - there is simply too much access to information for a candidate to so cravenly lie about what they would (or would not) do once in office - a candidate's history is so easily available and the media, while no longer in the role of fact checker so much as chorus, will eventually get around to creating a narrative of who you are and what you are about that can be devastating, just ask Al Gore, a decent public servant who presciently predicted W would bankrupt us but was mocked because he wore some earth tone sweaters on the campaign trail.  So keep talking up those cheesy grits and trees that are just the right height, Mitt.  It's not like the whole world is watching or anything.

[1]   His 1972 blowout of George McGovern was the biggest electoral rout of the 20th century.
[2]   For more on the mythology of Reagan, read my blog post, “The Myth of Saint Ronald” -
[3]   Sorry, PolitiFact, but Medicare, by definition, is government-run health care for seniors.  Ryan would turn it into a voucher program for insurance companies – that ends Medicare as we know it, no matter what you say. 

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