wow they even attack their own
When the histories of the 2012 campaign are written, much will be made of Bill Clinton’s re-emergence. His convention speech may well have marked the finest moment of President Obama’s re-election campaign, and his ads on the president’s behalf were memorable.
Matt Bai’s analysis and commentary.
But there is one crucial way in which the 42nd president may not have served the 44th quite as well. In these final weeks before the election, Mr. Clinton’s expert advice about how to beat Mitt Romney is starting to look suspect.
You may recall that last spring, just after Mr. Romney locked up the Republican nomination, Mr. Obama’s team abruptly switched its strategy for how to define him. Up to then, the White House had been portraying Mr. Romney much as George W. Bush had gone after John Kerry in 2004 – as inauthentic and inconstant, a soulless climber who would say anything to get the job.
But it was Mr. Clinton who forcefully argued to Mr. Obama’s aides that the campaign had it wrong. The best way to go after Mr. Romney, the former president said, was to publicly grant that he was the “severe conservative” he claimed to be, and then hang that unpopular ideology around his neck.
In other words, Mr. Clinton counseled that independent voters might forgive Mr. Romney for having said whatever he had to say to win his party’s nomination, but they would be far more reluctant to vote for him if they thought they were getting the third term of George W. Bush. Ever since, the Obama campaign has been hammering Mr. Romney as too conservative, while essentially giving him a pass for having traveled a tortured path on issues like health care reform, abortion and gay rights.
It’s not hard to understand why Mr. Obama and his advisers took Mr. Clinton’s advice to heart; to disregard it would be like telling Derek Jeter, “Hey man, appreciate the input, but I think I know how to make that flip play from the hole just fine on my own.” Nor is it hard to see how Mr. Clinton, given his own personal experience, may have reached his conclusion.
After all, if you’re Bill Clinton, you have to look at it this way: for your entire career as a candidate, other politicians tried to paint you as waffling and slippery, and not once did it actually work. (Well, there was that gubernatorial defeat in 1980, but that had more to do with Jimmy Carter and a bunch of Cuban refugees than anything else.)
Meanwhile, you won a couple of national elections by positioning yourself as the pragmatic bulwark against conservative extremism on one side and liberal excess on the other. So it would be natural to have learned that it makes more sense to exploit your opponent’s rigid ideology than his general squishiness.
But Mr. Clinton’s situation was different from either Mr. Romney’s or Mr. Obama’s. For one thing, Mr. Clinton’s brand of centrism — which Republicans, and a lot of Democrats, tried to portray as expedient — actually sprang from a coherent worldview. The charges of inauthenticity never seriously wounded Mr. Clinton because, unlike Mr. Romney, he had been remarkably consistent throughout his political life, and where there was inconsistency, Mr. Clinton had a singular ability to argue his way out of it.
Also, Mr. Clinton was able to set himself up against ideological extremism so successfully because he really was a centrist deal-maker, and everyone knew it. However much Mr. Obama may see himself in the same pragmatic vein, the voters, by and large, do not.
For a while this summer and into the fall, the Obama-Clinton strategy seemed to be working flawlessly. That’s because, almost inexplicably, Mr. Romney continued to run as if he were still contesting the Republican primaries. But in recent weeks, starting with the first debate, the challenger has made a brazen and frantic dash to the center, and Mr. Obama has often seemed off-balance, as if stunned that Mr. Romney thinks he can get away with such an obvious change of course so late in the race. Which, apparently, he can.
The bottom line here is that one can over-think this whole notion of framing your opponent. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the line of attack that works best is the one that really rings true. In the case of Mr. Romney, whatever his stated positions may be, the idea that he’s a far-right ideologue, a kind of Rush Limbaugh with better suits and frosty hair, just doesn’t feel especially persuasive.
On the other hand, the notion that Mr. Romney isn’t centered in any philosophical impulse — that he will say or do whatever it takes to win — seems more plausible, given his contortions on a range of policies, and given his excessive caution as a candidate.
If there’s one thing voters have shown time and time again in recent elections, it’s that they value authenticity above almost anything else. And Mr. Obama might have argued that this lack of a true north actually makes Mr. Romney more threatening to moderate voters than he would be if he were an actual ideologue, simply because he hasn’t shown any inclination to stand up to the more extreme forces in his own party.
As it is, though, Mr. Obama has chosen his path, and he now has only a few weeks to convince a lot of independents in states like Ohio and Virginia that Mr. Romney really is some raging conservative, rather than the more malleable, somewhat awkward fellow he is impersonating on TV. It’s an approach that has both pluses and minuses for Mr. Obama, much like the former president whose influence pervades his campaign.