If Barack Obama wins this election, he's going to win ugly. Job creation is anemic, voters think the country is going in the wrong direction, and the president has been unable to convince them otherwise. So, the path is clear: Destroy your opponent and pander to your base. Obama Wan Kenobi, it's your only hope.
This has been obvious for months. It was clear, at the very least, from the president's campaign kick-off back in May. What's new is that Mitt Romney’s campaign is trying to make something of it. In a recent series of ads and television appearances, the Republican challenger argues that the president has discarded the high-minded principles of his 2008 campaign to keep the White House at any cost. Obama promised to lift the nation above petty sniping and political game-playing, and now he's doing exactly what he decried. The latest Romney ad called “Hope and Change?” starts with CBS's Bob Schieffer asking David Axelrod, "What ever happened to hope and change?"
Do people really care about the niceties of campaigning? They don't like politicians. They expect them to say one thing and do another. Why would they be surprised when one of them is behaving exactly as they'd expect—especially when the other candidate is doing the same thing as well?
The Romney campaign is hoping that Barack Obama is a special case. In 2008, Barack Obama was supposed to be different. He ran his campaign on the promise that he could elevate the process. That was the key point in his larger campaign of hope. Polls at the time showed that people thought the American Dream of prosperity was no longer available to their kids. They bet on an inexperienced, one-term senator largely because he offered hope and a plausible case for change. Plus, he wasn't just talking about hope; as the first African-American president, he was a walking testament to the idea that the country could move forward.
What's the opposite of hope? Disappointment. Focusing on Obama's change in tone is just an inroad to access people’s deeper disappointments. Romney advisers say that in focus groups, attendees regularly talk about how the president let them down. That Obama has turned out to be just another politician is the most symbolic disappointment that amplifies a broader disappointment in Obama's inability to improve the economy. Another new Romney ad (which may not be true) touches on a similar theme, arguing that the candidate who promised to rid Washington of political insiders is giving his donors special access. "The question shouldn't be: 'Are you better off?' " says a Romney adviser. "The question should be: 'Did you think you would be better off?' ”
When the car repair bill is double what you were quoted, you're disappointed. When the auto-repair shop made such a big deal about how cheap it would be, the bill is a gut punch. This is also the theme of the creepy American Crossroads ad in which the president appears to have been in office a lot longer than three years.
Whether this Romney strategy works depends on whether any swing voter continues to value Obama's original hope-and-change message. Some never bought it in the first place. In 2008, Obama was willing to tear down his opponents if necessary. He ran more negative ads than any candidate in history. This pragmatic group of voters may have enjoyed the talk of uplift the same way they might enjoy jokes at the start of a speech: fun to listen to but not the main thing. Moving on from George Bush was the main thing.
Others who did buy the hope-and-change message the last time may have come to an accommodation with how it played out. Maybe they think it’s a shame, but it’s a mild disappointment they’re willing to overlook. (In Obama’s campaign launch video, this kind of voter is named Ed and he lives in North Carolina.)
The final group thinks Obama’s tougher side is an asset. Because the president faces opponents who will not meet him halfway, there’s no reason to continue to try to play nice. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that his primary job was defeating Barack Obama. This helps illustrate to voters who might care about fair dealing—otherwise why would Obama’s message have resonated in 2008—that the president wasn’t engaged with opponents who were interested in even maintaining the old niceties about cooperation.
How much disappointment a voter might feel also depends on how low Obama sinks. It's clear that his campaign’s claims about Mitt Romney’s outsourcing record at Bain are lower than the Sunday School standard, but they’re higher than the Willie Horton standard. They are lower than the Idealized Obama standard (outlined in his book The Audacity of Hope and his 2004 Democratic Convention speech), but they aren't necessarily lower than the current Depressing Campaign Baseline.
It is fair game for Obama to look at what Romney has said and match it against what he has done. Romney has said he will protect jobs from going overseas. Did he do that in the private sector? He has asked us to look at his expertise from those years in considering whether he has the skills and worldview required to fix the economy. It shouldn’t surprise him that the Obama campaign is looking.
For a person seeking to undermine Romney’s claim that his business career gives him special experience, there’s plenty in the record to exploit. There's no particular evidence that suggests he has a special understanding about employees, the human cost of creative destruction, or the struggles of the middle class. He has at various times asserted that he has special insight, but he has never really made the case. Various news articles suggest his expertise was specialized and put a premium on making money rather than protecting workers.
That is what's in Romney's record. The Obama team, in trying to make claims about Bain after Romney left to work on the Olympics in February 1999 is going beyond the useful record, which is just fishing. They've made a charge for which there's no proof, been slapped by the fact-checkers, and they've continued on anyway. The author of The Audacity of Hope would have no problem comparing Mitt Romney's private sector decisions about outsourcing to his public statements. But that Obama would want you to be able to actually prove that Romney made such decisions. So far the Obama 2012 campaign has no evidence that Romney made any substantive decisions—about outsourcing or anything else—after February 1999, when the bulk of the outsourcing took place. This line of attack is not aimed at figuring out whether Romney's past practices reveal what type of president he would make. It's an effort to discredit him.
With no actual evidence to support the claim, the Obama campaign has shifted its argument. This is about taking responsibility, they say. Romney's names were on several forms. He was chairman, CEO, president, and sole owner. Therefore, he bears responsibility, but he won’t accept it. The buck stops with him.
This argument is both important and unconvincing. On the one hand, obviously it's necessary for leaders to take responsibility. A president, for example, cannot make excuse after excuse for why things didn't turn out the way he said they would. (Recovery summer!) This is why Republicans criticize Obama for blaming earthquakes, instability in Europe, and the ATM for the lack of a genuine economic recovery. You're the president: Own it and fix it. But whether a person deserves the credit or blame that comes with responsibility requires some reasonable expectation that they have responsibility and a reasonable evaluation of the reach of his domain. A president can't control Europe, which is why Obama is not loony to use the global economy to explain why the U.S. economy is not improving. Mitt Romney had no effective control over the company and so his inner feelings about outsourcing can’t be determined from decisions he didn’t make.
The Obama team goes from unconvincing to nutty when it suggests that because Romney was still getting paid by Bain, he provided tacit assent to the decisions the firm was making. This should not be a game the Obama team would want to play, for fear of opening all kinds of sticky questions. Was Obama providing tacit assent when he maintained an acquaintance with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers? Was the president providing tacit assent when he sat in the pews listening to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary sermons? No and no.
The political point of the Obama team's attacks is to use a legitimate question to pry. Once you've gotten the press to treat your question as legitimate, even if there's no evidence of the initial claim, you can pick apart answers, continue to question, and generally create unstable air to cause your opponent turbulence. Romney has fallen for this tactic so well, my fear of flying makes it impossible to extend the metaphor without getting motion sickness.
What’s incredible is that the attacks are coming on these questions. This was Romney’s chosen narrative—that he has special business skills, expertise, and acumen. So it is odd that he and his team seem so flat-footed. Stranger still is that this is not his junior varsity season. He already had several clashes on this exact turf with his Republican opponents in the primaries. That was supposed to make him all the more ready for this highly predictable attack.
If Romney continues to stumble, it doesn’t just help the Obama campaign in the daily news cycle. It helps rehabilitate the Obama reputation: if Romney self-destructs, the Republican candidate will get blamed for it and President Obama can just put the whoopee cushion back in the drawer.
Mitt Romney does not want to have a full and frank discussion about the nature of post-Bain business arrangements because, even if it absolves him of any outsourcing decisions, his financial dealings will make him seem exotic and extremely unlike regular Americans. The same is true of his highly minimalist standard on releasing his tax returns. This truth has led those speaking for the campaign on these issues to seem rigid and uncomfortable. Their discomfort makes them seem like they're hiding something or at least not telling the full story. In that environment, when a new fact does emerge, it can seem revelatory, even if it merely adds detail and doesn't advance the story.
But Romney suffers in a bigger way that has nothing to do with the current discussion of outsourcing: He's never really offered a story to voters about how his career as a successful businessman will be good for us. Romney just asserts that he knows how the economy works and moves on.
Sit down with most small-business owners and it won’t take long before you hear a story about how they bent over backward to save an employee's job or structured their health plan to make it easier on them. You never hear Romney tell those stories. Maybe he can't. Perhaps he is not that kind of businessperson. There is the one famous Romney story about helping his employee find his lost daughter. Amazing, but he might need a story that doesn’t suggest one heroic act for a good friend as much as something more sustained.
Perhaps at the Republican convention Romney will reintroduce himself to Americans and take control of the story of his business career. Or, perhaps the Bain outsourcing stories will fade away in the coming weeks when Romney announces his vice presidential choice. That will take the pressure off Romney, but it will also rob his campaign of fresh examples of how Obama's attacks are yet another broken promise from four years ago. Given what a tangled mess these questions have become for Romney, that's a trade-off he'll no doubt be happy to take.