The Romney campaign knows how to use this. Actually, it might be forming the single best connection between the least-liked Republican nominee in decades and the most conservative party base that’s ever existed. Romney will never be Sarah Palin, who could “go rogue” off the McCain message in 2008—she had a Vulcan mind-meld with Republican voters and an intuitive sense of how to make the other guys look like sexists. (Four words: Lipstick on a pig.)
Romney lacks that, but his campaign staff has put together a reasonable facsimile. Ferhnstrom, in particular, knows what the base will consider fair play and how the media will react to it. Last summer he was uncloaked as the man behind “CrazyKhazei,” a fake Twitter account mocking a candidate who briefly ran against his client, Scott Brown. (“I promise to devote all my time in office to making gay videos. Shame on Scott Brown for focusing on jobs!”) Fehrnstrom didn’t apologize. “Sometimes we take our politics too seriously,” he told the Boston Globe, “and this was my way of lightening things up.” A Khazei campaign vet, not really eager to relive their failure, admitted that the brazenness of the tweet campaign took them by surprise. They were earnest. The other team wasn’t.
A few months later, Romney went on the air in New Hampshire with an ad full of 2008 vintage Barack Obama quotes. “If we keep talking about the economy,” said Obama, “we’re gonna lose.” One problem: Obama was merely quoting his opponent, John McCain. Politifact unleashed its full “pants on fire” rating for the perfidy. Fehrnstrom and the rest of his team put out the fire and shrugged. “It was all very intentional,” he told me. “You had the press secretary to the president of the United States talking about an ad that was running on one station in New Hampshire,” crowed another adviser, Stuart Stevens. Winning meant pissing off the other guy, no matter how you did it.
Michael Goldfarb applauds the Romney campaign’s punch-back abilities—but only up to a point. “They've been attacked on the dog thing to an insane level,” he says. “They get an opportunity, and they hit back. But both this and the Rosen thing were totally reactive. This was a response to the Seamus story, that was a response to the ‘war on women.’ You don't see them going after character and bio, which were the things McCain was accused of going soft on.”
Not technically, no. But look closer. The “dog meat” hit reminds viewers that Obama spent an odd childhood in Indonesia, something the media wants Republicans to shut up about. The Hilary Rosen flap had a second life when right-bloggers tried to prove that a CNN contributor was a key White House ally—more media-Democrat collusion! And on Tuesday, in the midst of all this, Romney gave an interview to Breitbart.com. Its readers and writers firmly believe that Obama was never vetted. Romney told them that he, too, was aware of the “vast left-wing conspiracy.” The message: I, too, understand the conservative mind and what it wants from its candidates. The outrage will change from day to day. The dog meat is less important than the dog whistle.