Romney Campaign Adopts Risky “Take Off The Gloves” Strategy
The Romney campaign has apparently decided to be more aggressive in its attacks on the President, which poses serious risks for the campaign.
McKay Coppins at Buzzfeed reports that the Romney campaign has made a conscious decision to shift to a more aggressive “take the gloves off” strategy that involves direct attacks on the President on not just policy, but also character issues:
In speeches from Des Moines to Dallas, Romney has always been careful to hedge his tough digs at Obama with a civil nod toward the president’s moral character: “He’s a nice guy,” the Republican has often said. “He just has no idea how the private economy works.” But Tuesday’s speech included no such hedge — and one campaign adviser said there’s a reason for that.
“[Romney] has said Obama’s a nice fellow, he’s just in over his head,” the adviser said. “But I think the governor himself believes this latest round of attacks that have impugned his integrity and accused him of being a felon go so far beyond that pale that he’s really disappointed. He believes it’s time to vet the president. He really hasn’t been vetted; McCain didn’t do it.”
Indeed, facing what the candidate and his aides believe to be a series of surprisingly ruthless, unfounded, and unfair attacks from the Obama campaign on Romney’s finances and business record, the Republican’s campaign is now prepared to go eye for an eye in an intense, no-holds-barred act of political reprisal, said two Romney advisers who spoke on condition of anonymity. In the next chapter of Boston’s pushback — which began last week when they began labeling Obama a “liar” — very little will be off-limits, from the president’s youthful drug habit, to his ties to disgraced Chicago politicians.
“I mean, this is a guy who admitted to cocaine use, had a sweetheart deal with his house in Chicago, and was associated and worked with Rod Blagojevich to get Valerie Jarrett appointed to the Senate,” the adviser said. “The bottom line is there’ll be counterattacks.”
The reference to Obama’s past drug use seems to suggest that former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu wasn’t going off-script after all when he dinged the president for spending “his early years in Hawaii smoking something” during a Tuesday morning Fox News appearance.
Returning fire with personal attacks on Obama offers both emotional satisfaction to Romney and many Republicans, and an answer of sorts to relentless Democratic attacks on Romney’s time as an executive. It has so far failed, however, to quiet the growing, bipartisan chorus of voices demanding Romney release more of his personal tax returns. Obama campaign officials privately admit that the Republican has, at times, been effective in beating down attacks on his business record — but they’ve yet to see a way out on the tax issue.
Perhaps as a solution to that problem, Romney surrogates will place increased emphasis in coming days on the “Fast and Furious” gun-running scandal at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, hoping to drag the story back into the headlines, and highlight questions about the the Obama campaign’s transparency, the Romney adviser said.
Essentially then, the Romney campaign has apparently decided to engage in the kind of campaign that conservative activists have been begging for since pretty much the day Barack Obama took the Oath Of Office. Things like John Sunnunu calling the President “un-American,” or mentioning his past drug use aren’t shocking to them at all, because those are things they’ve been talking about for years. Indeed, one of the common complaints you’ll hear from this branch of the GOP about Romney is the fact that he was being too respectful to the President when he said things like he believed the President as a “nice man” and otherwise refused to engage in the kind of character assassination they so obviously desire. They had the same problem with John McCain, of course, especially when he went out of his way late in the 2008 campaign tocorrect a woman at a campaign rally who said to him that Obama was a Muslim who hated America. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not this is a viable campaign strategy, the Romney campaign is essentially giving the right exactly what it wants, and the reactions of various conservative bloggers demonstrates that clearly.
Michelle Malkin, for example, gave the news a quite literal “Hallelujah,” Bryan Preston is happy that the President is going to be vetted, something conservatives claim never happened in 2008, and Rush Limbaugh said that the Romney campaign was finally taking his advice on how to deal with Obama. Of all the conservative reactions to this that I’ve seen, only Ed Morrissey notes that there is no small degree of danger in a strategy like this:
That may or may not be a great idea for the campaign – -depending on execution. Sticking to an economic argument would focus on what voters care most about rather than fight on less-clear grounds about which is the better man morally for the job. However, it has become clear that Obama won’t talk about the economy and will launch a character fight as a distraction. This means Romney needs to find a way to turn that fight into something relevant to the economy — which Romney has started to do with his sharp attacks on Obama’s crony capitalism within the stimulus program as a way to argue that Obama is hopelessly corrupt.
My guess is that this will at least rally the base for Romney, where complaints over his lack of response to Obama’s attacks on his character have crescendoed recently.
Well, fine, it will certainly rally the base but I remain convinced that the base of the Republican Party is not going to have any trouble getting out and supporting Mitt Romney this fall. Not so much because they love Romney so much, but because they hate Barack Obama even more. As said more than once during the primary campaign when pundits were making claims that Romney was failing to excite conservatives, the idea that these people will pass up the opportunity to defeat Obama is simply laughable. I don’t care what the polls say right now, Romney has the base in his corner from now until Election Day, they aren’t the ones he needs to worry about.
The question for Romney and his advisers is how this new strategy is going to help them attract the votes of independent and swing voters, especially in the swing states. Are they really looking for a candidate whose surrogates are going to talk about Obama’s past, or Fast & Furious? Or, are they looking for a candidate who is going to talk about the state of the economy and what he thinks should be done to make things better? I don’t think you even need to take polls to answer those questions. The economy is the important issue here, not the absurd “vetting” of the President meme that has been floating around the conservative blogosphere ever since Andrew Breitbart died. The more the Romney campaign is talking about something other than the economy, the less they are speaking to the voters they actually need to persuade to come to their side between now and November 6th.
An additional factor that brings some danger to this new strategy is that negative attacks like this could very well backfire on the campaign. As I’ve mentioned before, despite the state of the economy and an approval number on the economy that remains pretty bad, the American public still tends to like Barack Obama as a person. What are the odds that taking this kind of hard turn toward the rhetoric of the hard right are actually going to change people’s minds on that issue? Fairly low, I would suggest, and for the same reason that those attacks didn’t work in 2008 either, because they are completely inconsistent with the type of person Obama appears to be on the campaign trail. Now that he has four years in office under his belt, the public knows, or at least thinks it knows, more about him as a person. Trying to tarnish that image is likely to be a well-nigh impossible task.
Additionally, the idea that Barack Obama wasn’t vetted in 2008 is, quite simply, an absurd idea that the right has been pushing for the last four years:
During the 2008 campaign, the complaints typically revolved around the claim that the media wasn’t covering things like then-Senator Obama’s ties to Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers (or, for some, that they weren’t demanding to see his birth certificate, college transcripts, or kindergarten graduation records). The most bizarre thing about these particular complaints four years ago is the fact that most of them were being made at the same time that the media was covering the things conservatives said they weren’t covering. Does nobody remember the month of April 2008 when Obama was forced to publicly address the Rev. Wright controversy twice during the course of a hotly contested primary fight with Hillary Clinton, for example? First, Obama gave a major address in Philadelphia on race after several weeks of press coverage about Wright’s controversial statements. Then, when Rev. Wright decided to go on his own press tour during which he not only doubled down on the controversial statements that were getting coverage in the media nearly every day, but basically said that Obama had only spoken out against those statements for political reasons, Obama found it necessary to openly denounce and disassociate himself from Wright completely. Arguably, the fact that Rev. Wright was in the news for almost the entire month of April 2008 was one of the primary reasons that Obama ended up losing the Pennsylvania Primary. To argue, then, that the media wasn’t covering these issues about Obama’s past is simply absurd. By the time the General Election rolled around, the Rev. Wright issue had been covered to death by the media, and Obama survived it. Clearly, the only reason that it remained a source of complaint on the right was because it didn’t have the effect they had hoped it would.
As you might suspect, the left is largely rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of the Romney campaign parroting, say, The Rush Limbaugh Show or what appears daily at the Breitbart sites, largely because they are convinced it would be doomed to fail. As I noted above, I think it would be but it also depends on what exactly the campaign means to do with this “take off the gloves strategy.” I find it hard to believe that Romney himself will be the one directly going after the President on anything but the issues, that’s just not how Presidential campaigns are run. Instead, you’d see the attacks coming from surrogates, and eventually, the Vice-Presidential nominee. If Romney stays on a mostly economic message, then he can claim some degree of detachment from the whole thing. So, we’ll have to see exactly what the campaign does before evaluating its impact, but my first reaction is that this isn’t really the right way for them to go.
The thing the Romney campaign may not understand, though, is the signal they’ve sent to the activists, the bloggers, the tweeters, and the talk radio hosts. Not that they really needed it, but this kind of shift in tone will just encourage them to double down on their attacks on the President, thinking that they’re actually accomplishing something and helping the campaign. They’ve also opened the door to this kind of rhetoric at the Republican National Convention, when the American people will finally begin playing close attention to this race. Even if the Romney camp doesn’t go hard-core, its supporters will and the media and the Obama campaign will do everything they can to associate one with the other.
They won’t listen to my advice, but the Romney team needs to get on with talking about the economy, the deficit, and the impending fiscal cliff. Nonsense about the President’s past isn’t going to do much to help them win in November, and it poses the not insignificant risk of damaging their candidate severely.