Published September 25, 2012
By kicking off his Ohio bus tour with an unusually blunt attack on Obama’s big-government philosophy, Mitt Romney appears to have adopted a new strategy. Romney described Obama’s vision of government as “entirely foreign to anything this nation has ever known.” He decried “a larger government, taking more and more, intruding in your relationship with your doctor, investing, so to speak, in companies, picking winners and losers, or in his case, losers.” Then came the biggest applause line: “That is not the America I know. That is not the America that built Ohio.”
Romney’s attacks on Obama’s 1998 remarks about redistribution could have been dismissed as an effort to divert attention from the 47 percent flap. Today’s Ohio campaign-speech appears to signal a more serious pivot. This is how Romney has chosen to open his tour of the ultimate battleground state. Gone is Obama the likable guy in over his head. Now we have Obama the transformative ideologue. You don’t need to screen clips from 2016, or even bring up European social democracy, to make the point.
Romney’s earlier strategy of depending on reminders of Obama’s failed economic stewardship to gently wean voters away from Obama wasn’t crazy. Why alienate that thin sliver of Obama-sympathetic undecideds by making them feel like fools for having supported the president in the first place? Yet that framing made the election a choice between blaming Obama for our economic troubles or cutting him some slack for having been handed such a bad situation to begin with.
This new strategy changes things. By highlighting Obama’s transformative policies, Romney gives voters a way to make sense of Obama’s role in our economic woes. This is how the 2010 election was won. Yes, the economy was bad back in 2010, but that alone can’t explain the GOP’s sweeping off-year victory. If a bad economy by itself was enough to account for 2010, Romney would be ahead right now.
The secret to the big Republican win in 2010 was the connection voters made between the bad economy and Obama’s ambitious policies. The stimulus hadn’t worked as promised and was pushing us into bankruptcy. Health-care reform distracted Obama from the jobs battle, broke the bank, and paralyzed small business. Voters blamed Obama’s high-profile policies for the bad economy in 2010, and that’s why Republicans won.
Since losing the House, Obama has been forced to work his transformative ways via regulation: suspending work on the Keystone pipeline, pushing for cap-and-trade through the EPA, not protesting when his hand-picked NLRB blocked Boeing’s move to South Carolina, gutting the work requirements of welfare reform, and so on. By highlighting these concrete moves, and linking them to both Obama’s philosophy and the bad economy, Romney can convince undecided voters that Obama is to blame for our troubles.
A sharper case against Obama may risk putting off some undecideds, but may also convince those who’d been inclined to cut Obama some slack that the economy isn’t just a terrible muddle that no president could figure out. On the contrary, it’s a problem Obama’s big-government policies have made worse. None of this will surprise conservatives, of course. But thanks to the mainstream media, voters who are still undecided at this point may never have heard the case for Obama’s role in mucking up the economy. You can’t make that case without implicitly or explicitly invoking Obama’s ideology.
Obama’s own strategy plays into this. The president is running a much more openly left-leaning campaign than Democrats typically do. “You didn’t build that” was no fluke. It was embedded in a “we’re all in this together” communitarian narrative that pushes Obama’s big-government aspirations out into the open.
Obama’s “personal” attacks on Romney are ideological too. Painting Romney as a heartless, tax-dodging, big-businessman is a way of painting capitalism as the source of our troubles. It’s not enough to parry this by simply retelling Romney’s impressive history of generosity, compassion, and kindness. Romney needs an implicitly ideological narrative capable of countering Obama’s own implicitly left-ideological campaign.
Romney’s new narrative also happens to be true, a real advantage. Once you itemize Obama’s big government ploys, voters will get it. Obama’s aspirations for government’s role in the economy really are unprecedented.
We can’t say for certain that Romney will keep at it, but the intensity of his attacks on Obama today do seem to indicate a new strategy. I think it’s a good idea.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of the new book, Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.