How Team Romney Connects With Hard-Core Conservatives

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April 18 2012 7:51 PM

The Audacity of Rope-a-Dope

Mitt Romney may not be the most popular politician with the Republican Party’s conservative base, but Team Romney knows how to throw them a bone.

Mitt Romney and Eric Fehrnstrom.
Mitt Romney talks with campaign advisers Stuart Stevens (left) and Eric Fehrnstrom (right). Fehrnstrom helped remind voters that President Obama wrote about eating dog in Dreams From My Father.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Eric Fehrnstrom wields Twitter like a torero wields a red flag. On Tuesday night, after his client and advisee Mitt Romney had spent a day making speeches about taxes, Fehrnstrom noticed a picture of President Obama playing with his dog, Bo. David Axelrod, his nemesis in the Obama campaign, had tweeted the photo to tweak Romney.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“How loving dog owners transport their dogs,” wrote Axelrod.

Get it? Axelrod was making either the 12,936th or 12,937th joke about a 29-year-old incident involving Romney’s dog, a car roof, a 12-hour drive, and dribbling feces. (The first thousand jokes were told by Gail Collins.) Bad timing. Fehrnstrom had read a blog post resurrecting the bit from Dreams From My Father wherein Obama remembered youthful digestive experiments with “dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy).”

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Obama had eaten dog meat? This was too good to keep on Jim Treacher’s news blog. Fehrnstrom retweeted Axelrod and added “In hindsight, a chilling photo.” Within an hour, Jake Tapper of ABC News was out with a story titled “Romney Campaign Notes that Obama as a Boy Ate Dog Meat.” Not long after that, the Drudge Report popped a link to Tapper. One tweet from an iPad, and the Romney campaign had knocked back five years of dog stories. You’ve got a bogus controversy? Yeah? Yeah? How do ya like this bogus controversy?

Great things can grow out of stupid stories. Fehrnstrom jacked into an emerging, jokey conservative meme. It even had a hashtag: #ObamaDogReceipes. “John McCain’s presidential campaign wouldn’t have touched this anecdote with a ten-foot pole,” wrote the National Review’s Jim Geraghty. “Between this and the Romney camp’s rapid response to the Rosen comments, we are seeing a Republican presidential campaign that is exponentially faster on its feet and way more nimble than the previous general-election campaign against Obama.”

That was the point. Republican voters, the choosey people who made Romney survive three months of primaries, believe that Barack Obama won too easily in 2008. The media and the McCain campaign failed to “vet” him. I heard iterations of the theory when South Carolina Republicans blew their kingmaker record and chose Newt Gingrich over Romney. Gingrich, they told me, would “eviscerate” and “lacerate” Obama. McCain? Poor guy had his chance, and he wimped out.

The theory is sound. It’s been documented that McCain warned staff and ad-makers off of certain topics, like Barack Obama’s membership (now expired) in Jeremiah Wright’s church. Days before the 2008 election, the McCain campaign dispatched spokesman Michael Goldfarb to CNN, where he kept implying that Obama palled around with anti-Semites—nearly flouting the Wright rule. Then-host Rick Sanchez kept needling Goldfarb, encouraging him to say it. When Goldfarb wrapped and headed back to his office, he was greeted by whooping, cheering staffers. “Everybody was psyched about it,” says Goldfarb. “Everybody in the campaign wanted to go there. But McCain was the boss.”

Four years later, Goldfarb chairs the Center for American Freedom, which publishes the Washington Free Beacon. The former is a parody of the Center for American Progress; the latter is a parody of its blog. In an essay introducing the project, editor in chief Matt Continetti explained its origins in the media-went-easy theory of the 2008 election. “Obama’s life and record,” he wrote, “were treated with nothing that approached the scrutiny accorded to John McCain’s friendship with lobbyists and to Sarah Palin’s life story.” Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, fount of Obama’s “doggate” story (seriously, that hashtag emerged on Wednesday), was founded with the same gripe. The media, said Carlson in 2010, had indulged in “an enormous amount of throne-sniffing” to protect Obama.

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