Obama aide David Plouffe laid it out on Meet the Press: "[Romney] has no core. . . . He was supportive of doing things like a cap-and-trade agreement; now he doesn't think that climate change is real. He was to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay-rights issues; now he wants to amend the Constitution to prevent gay marriage. He was an extremely pro-choice governor; now he believes that life begins at conception and would ban Roe v. Wade. Issue after issue after issue, he's moved all over the place. . . . If he thought it was good to say the sky was green and the grass was blue to win an election, he'd say it."
This brings to mind the old line about how Kerry was "for" an issue before he was "against" it - and vice versa. The Bush administration's aim, in 2004, was to frame that election not as a referendum on the incumbent, but as a character choice between Bush and a foe devoid of authenticity. The Obama administration figures that Romney will be the nominee, and clearly believes he is grist for Kerryification.
Perhaps so. Romney's waverings and reversals are too numerous to list here, but here's my latest favorite: Back in June he said, "I believe, based on what I read, that the world is getting warmer. And, number two, I believe that humans contribute to that." But 10 days ago he said, "We don't know what's causing climate change on this planet."
Meanwhile, a report surfaced Thursday that the guy who now styles himself as an avowed foe of abortion was actually quite the opposite while running for governor in Massachusetts in 2002; he reportedly promised abortion-rights activists that if he ever gained clout in the national GOP, he would fight to soften the antiabortion platform by doing battle with the avowed foes of abortion.
Indeed, Obama's "no core" message is aimed not just at the crucial swing voters, but at grassroots conservative voters - many of whom already harbor doubts about Romney and therefore might be ill-enthused about showing up on Election Day. Ed Rogers, a veteran Republican strategist, spoke for many of his brethren late last month when he wrote that Romney "has issues with authenticity." The columnist George Will denounced Romney as "a recidivist reviser of principles," and lamented: "Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for this?"
Team Obama clearly wants to contrast Romney the weather vane (or, as GOP rival Jon Huntsman calls him, "a perfectly lubricated weather vane") with Obama the pillar of principle. In Plouffe's words, "what you need in that office is conviction; you need to have a true compass."
Here's where I have my doubts about the Obama strategy.
Romney is indeed susceptible to every political breeze, but Obama has long embraced irresolution. Among the many flip-flops, he vowed in 2008 to close Guantanamo, yet today it's still open; he declared in 2010 that secret campaign donations were "a threat to democracy," yet today his reelection bid is buoyed by Democratic groups that take secret donations; he once opposed prosecuting terrorists in military tribunals (in his '08 words, they "undermine our capacity to ensure swift and certain justice"), but now he's for them. And I'm not even counting all the times he has caved to the congressional Republicans - most recently in June, when he dumped his tax-the-rich stance to ink the debt-ceiling deal on Republican terms.
Today, of course, he's talking again about hiking taxes on the rich; it's a key plank in his jobs plan. Creating jobs via public spending is popular with the public - most notably, requiring the rich to pay for it garners landslide majority support - and it dovetails with Obama's latest incarnation as Wall Street foe and populist defender of the little guy. (Which is reminiscent of Al Gore's "people vs. the powerful" message, the one that failed to get him elected.)
Here again, Obama seeks to frame a contrast with Romney - a corporate guy whose venture firm, Bain Capital, bought distressed companies and sometimes shaped them up by laying people off. That lucrative chapter in Romney's history has been recounted in a new video ad sponsored by Obama's Democratic allies. The theme, hardly subtle, is that Obama is for the people, while Romney is a puppet for the powerful.
Perhaps Obama can harness the general anger currently directed at Wall Street and make this message work. The potential problem, however, is that he spent much of his tenure flip-flopping between populism and obeisance to the powerful. He denounced bankers as "fat cats" in 2009, but dropped the attack when his Wall Street friends complained. His economic team has long been festooned with Wall Street types. His current chief of staff hails from the banking industry. It's no wonder that the Occupy Wall Street crowd refuses to embrace Obama as a working-class hero.
But I get what the White House is trying to do. Just as Bush was hampered by his foolish war in Iraq, Obama is stuck with his sour economy. The best alternative - indeed, Obama's only choice - is to put a face on the opposition and begin the demolition work with all deliberate speed. Bush did his number on Kerry and escaped with the narrowest reelection win since 1916.
Obama's race won't be any easier; hence, his preemptive pugilism. Back in '08 he stoked idealism by talking about "the fierce urgency of now," and it's a sign of his dire straits that this fierceness is now so directed at his own survival.
Contact Dick Polman
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