After the first presidential debate, it was hard to deny that Mitt Romney appeared confident and in control – an image which he hadn’t portrayed over the course of his campaign. Up until the debate, Governor Romney had vacillated on various positions, often adopting foreign and domestic policies that were red meat for his right-wing base. But now, since the debate, we have seen a change in both policy and persona. What is responsible for this shift?
First, it is possible that this shift in public perception might not have been as apparent, or apparent at all, if in the first debate the president hadn’t allowed Romney to spout vastly different policy positions without fact checking him on his past statements. But the president screwed up, the shift occurred, and the administration must now deal with the public perception of a centrist, confident Romney, as opposed to a waffling extremist. Of course, cornering Romney as a waffling extremist was a calculated strategy by the Obama campaign – a strategy which they solicited from master politician Bill Clinton. This decision was put into action very early to define Romney before Romney could attempt to define Obama – and it was effective – that is, up until the debate.
This combination of Obama’s failure to pin down his opponent, in conjunction with Romney’s deliberate move to the middle, has severely undermined the president’s campaign narrative. Indeed, Romney’s shift toward "moderation" is extremely craven and cynical, but it has forced the Obama campaign to choose between two narratives. Is Romney a radical extremist beholden to his party’s base? Or is he a moderate flip-flopper devoid of true character?
What the Obama camp seems to be doing now is to weave these two narratives into one grand narrative where Romney is portrayed as a characterless extremist you can’t trust with the future of the country. The problem is: Are these two narratives too contradictory to weave together? Is it possible to be a flip flopper but also a radical ideologue and extremist?
It is clear that the Obama campaign saw the last foreign policy debate as an opportunity to start a fight with Mitt Romney (the character) by exposing the many policy shifts he has made in the course of the campaign on Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, etc. In reaction, Romney embraced almost all of Obama’s foreign policy, and ended up coming across as the peace and hope candidate. Some suggest this was also a deliberate political move to the middle to gain favor with women and undecided voters because they favor peace … or something. This serial pandering, once again, is ridiculously cynical, though not surprising; this is after all the same party that chose Sarah Palin in ’08 for vice president. The Romney camp knew it couldn’t win on foreign policy, so it chose to go the soft, fuzzy, and bland route. To a degree this strategy may have been effective politically; but after all is said and done, the American people should see past the rhetoric. Simply repeating over and over that you are for peace and hope is like saying you like ice cream and pizza (no offense to peace, hope, ice cream or pizza).
Hitting home on this matter of consistency, the Obama campaign went after Romney for being “unsteady,” – a characterization we are sure to see more of in the next two weeks. The other particularly snarky attack is that Romney has changed positions so many times, the Obama has diagnosed him with Romnesia. The delivery has a Jeff Foxworthy ring to it: “If you say that you love American cars during a debate but you wrote an article entitled ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’ You might have Romnesia.”
The flip-flopping narrative works in some ways, but it also muddles the extremist charge. As we’ve seen in the debates, the Romney campaign is more comfortable fighting back on the consistency argument. His strength in the debates has been when he lists off how badly the middle class has been “crushed,” how the president predicted 5.4% unemployment, and now it’s only at 7.8% (the president says I’m not consistent but he’s not consistent on jobs and getting American back to work.) On foreign policy, Romney could have gone after the president on not closing Guantanamo Bay, but he doesn’t want to close it either, so there’s no real contrast to draw.
As a result, the changing framework, the messaging of Romney as Tea Party extremist, has been chipped away at, leaving the most primal and salient source of enthusiasm for likely Romney supporters, which is, how much they hate Barack Obama. Throughout this debate, you will be hard pressed to find a Romney supporter who is willing to make a sincere argument in support of Mitt Romney’s character. If you try watching Fox News, you don’t see many pundits complaining about Romney taking more moderate positions because many Republicans (not all) are willing to accept Romney’s vacuous character because they hate Obama that much.
So when Election Day comes, will the president’s campaign to paint Romney as a flip-flopper work? No doubt it will be difficult to re-introduce this thoroughly into voters minds in only two weeks. But the voting bloc that will make the pivotal difference in this election, and perhaps for years to come, will be those Reagan Republicans who don’t necessarily like Obama that much, but who also see that Romney has verged on extremism and schizophrenia in his positions, and see this as more disconcerting than another four years of Obama. The question is: has our political dialogue become so stilted and cynical as to render facts, lies, and character moot?