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.
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.
“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).”
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.
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.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.