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Can Romney And Ryan Seize The 'High Ground'?

Just as Democrats were touting Mitt Romney's pick of Paul Ryan as proof that Romney was having to shore up his conservative base rather than play to the center, along comes Jonathan Chait with a characteristically sharp counter. Ryan is in his own way a play for the center, Chait argues -- not on the grounds of policy -- heck, his plan would effectively zero out his boss' taxes! -- but on the ground of "character":

What is the political calculation of the Paul Ryan pick (to the extent that it’s a calculation at all)? It’s not a ploy to gin up the conservative base, which is already rabidly motivated. It’s an attempt to claim for the Romney campaign the political high ground. Romney is now running on a meta message about himself: We are serious, substantive, and good; they are frivolous, dishonest, and mean.
Romney had already adopted the message before announcing the Ryan pick. In an interview with Chuck Todd, Romney piously called for both campaigns to forswear attacking one another’s personal history or business career: “our campaign would be — helped immensely if we had an agreement between both campaigns that we were only going to talk about issues and that attacks based upon — business or family or taxes or things of that nature.” So, under this thoughtful approach, Obama couldn’t attack Romney’s business record, which he’s running on, but Romney could attack Obama’s political record.

How does Ryan make this high-ground gambit possible? Through his "Sad Paul" persona:

One underrated aspect of the new GOP veep nominee’s political arsenal is a recurring persona of his that you might call Sad Paul Ryan. Sad Paul Ryan is less an ideological crusader and more like a wide-eyed boy who has come to Washington full of hope only to have his youthful dreams crushed by nastiness and name-calling. How Ryan’s high-minded belief in the purity of political debate managed to survive his rise to power as a Washington staffer, I cannot say. So emotionally vulnerable is Sad Paul Ryan that even a statistical recitation of the effects of his plan will nearly reduce him to tears. He is capable of complaining that Obama will “affix views to your opponent that they do not have so you can demonize them” — two sentences after accusing Obama of advocating “socialized medicine.”
Yet Sad Paul Ryan appears so genuinely sad when he says such things — quite likely because he lacks the self-awareness that might complicate his earnest dejection — that he melts the cynicism of hardened observers. So Romney’s advisers are now proclaiming, “We are betting that a substantive campaign, conducted on the high ground, and focused primarily on jobs and the economy, will trump a campaign that is designed to appeal to our worst instincts,” and the candidate himself is delivering lines such as “Mr. President, take your campaign out of the gutter and let's talk about issues.” 

Will it work? Chait notes that it has in the past:

Now, adopting a persona of high-mindedness does not have a perfect track record in American politics. But it’s not a hopeless gambit, either. George W. Bush in 2000 successfully convinced the campaign press corps that Al Gore was a serial liar, and when the press pack suddenly decided in October of that year that Al Gore’s lies were the story of the race, his poll numbers fatally swooned. Many undecided voters pay little attention to the issues and simply form impressions of the candidates, rooted in broad personal appraisal.
The political upside Romney is trying to capitalize upon with Ryan is his reputation for sincerity and high-mindedness. In this sense, the Ryan pick is an attempt to capture the center — not with substance, but with (perceived) character.

Chait is definitely onto something here, to which I'm going to add just a few thoughts. First, it cannot be overstated just how brazen a gambit this is. As Jonathan notes, the new bid for high ground was being made at the very same events where Romney and Ryan were decrying Obama for "robbing" Medicare of $700 billion to pay for Obamacare -- reductions in the future growth of Medicare (culled from payments to providers, not enrollee benefits) that are also part of the Ryan budget. More striking, though, is that the move for the high ground comes at exactly the same time as the Romney campaign is filling the airwaves with ads accusing Obama of doing away with the work requirements for welfare recipients. This charge -- made by the son of a pro-safety net former HUD secretary! -- has been utterly debunked by countless factcheckers who've noted that Obama's tweak of welfare rules was requested by several Republican governors and would require states to show an increase in work hours by welfare recipients. But far from letting this rebuke dissuade him, Romney has doubled down with a new welfare ad, this one with a 1998 clip of Obama expressing skepticism about the 1996 welfare reform law (because we know that what people say and did in the 1990s is a clear barometer of their true selves.) Yes, the ad is "substantive." It's also as deceptive and cynical as it gets.

So will it work? Here's why one would think not: because Mitt Romney is the candidate at the top of the ticket, not Ryan, and he has not established for himself the sort of credibility with the press that George W. Bush, to the dismay of Democrats, managed to in 2000; if anything, Romney has been put into the Al Gore box of an easy negative caricature. But here's why it just might succeed: because one should never underestimate the press' susceptibility to being played like referees at a Miami Heat home playoff game. In recent weeks, there has been a notable upsurge in the press' reliance on its favorite comfort blanket, the soft, nubbly felt of false equivalence that makes no effort to distinguish among kind and degree of campaign attacks. Consider this summary from Friday's New York Times, which charges both campaigns with being equally guilty of taking their opponent's words out of context, overlooking the fact that while the Democrats have tittered over Romney lines such as "I like to fire people" or "I'm not concerned about the very poor," they haven't turned them into full line of attacks with millions of dollars of ad time behind them, as the other side has with Obama's "you didn't build that" line. Or consider the failure to distinguish between the two hard-hitting ads that debuted last week -- the welfare one from Romney, and the one from the pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA that insinuated that Romney bore responsibility in the death of the wife of a man who lost his insurance when Bain Capital shut down his steel plant. The latter ad was harsh, it pushed the boundaries of fairness, and it leaves itself open to debate: where, exactly, does one draw the line in a capitalist society between the self-interested decisions of corporate overlords and the human consequences that they often lead to, several years down the line? What the ad does not do, however, is to blatantly thumb its nose at reality as Romney's welfare attacks do. It is harsh, not cynical. And the press' inability to make that distinction can't help but leave one thinking that Romney and Ryan just might be able to make that reach for the high ground even as cards like the welfare one keep being played down below.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis