So far, both sides have waged relentlessly negative campaigns, but last night, Mitt Romney came out swinging and derided Obama’s tactics in unusually harsh terms. The tone of Romney’s remarks were probably a little off what it needed to be, but it’s not hard to see why the Romney campaign decided to give this speech. For one, Obama’s attacks are clearly working, perhaps especially in Ohio, where Romney spoke last night. And with prohibitively poor favorability ratings, Romney needs a reset heading into the convention: If he can’t turn around his image, he’ll probably lose. The Romney campaign has never possessed an effective retort to any of Obama’s main lines of attack on tax returns, outsourcing, or Bain. Instead, Boston’s first instinct was to punch back, but they’ve probably learned that Obama is too well-known to be easily defined by negative advertisements.
If you don’t have a response to attacks and your own attacks aren’t effective, the best alternative is to take the high ground and attack negative campaigning itself. I’m not even close to the first to make this observation, but that’s because it is not hard to see how this could be a powerful message. Attacking Obama’s campaign style jives well with the “Obama disappointed me” meme that Crossroads has been pushing since May, and that could be convincing to voters in battleground states who have already endured three months of advertisements at saturation-levels. Romney can convincingly claim that this style of campaigning isn’t the big debate about the direction of the country that voters deserve, and his selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate could potentially provide him the credibility necessary to pivot to a high-minded and serious campaign about issues, as a few others have noted.
Combined, these arguments form the outlines of a coherent message that seamlessly transitions from a response to Obama’s attacks to a positive message for change: Obama’s running a negative campaign, don’t believe his lies, we need a serious campaign to change the direction of the country, Ryan and I have a credible plan to solve the debt, the economy, and turn the country around. Who knows whether this would convince voters to give Romney a second chance or discount the Obama campaign’s attacks, but Romney hasn’t had a message since he decided to stop stressing his business experience, and he desperately needs one heading into the conventions.
And yet, Romney’s ability to transition to this new message is complicated by his own relentlessly negative campaign, which has not only exclusively focused on attacking the president, but has not been immune to the criticism of the vaunted fact checkers who occasionally police the campaigns. Who knows whether voters recognize this, but the media certainly will and so will the Obama campaign, which will make it difficult for Romney to suddenly present himself as the high-road, serious, positive candidate interested in the big issues. Indeed, on the same day that Romney would slam Obama's campaigning, his campaign continued to air advertisements attacking Obama for ending the welfare work requirement—a veritable falsehood that the Obama campaign will surely employ to remind the media that Romney hasn't exactly campaigned like a saint. Of course, there's nothing stopping the Romney campaign from changing course and adopting an advertising strategy consistent with the "high road," but for whatever reason, they have so far refrained from adopting such an approach.
So not only did the Romney campaign's early strategy err in the short-term by attacking a well-defined incumbent rather than building-up its own undefined candidate, it also unwittingly denied itself the credibility necessary to deflect its opponent's attacks. While I’m running out of ways to express the peculiar state of this race, where an incumbent is obviously vulnerable but the challenger has forfeited his ability to capitalize, this is surely an illustrative example. Romney really would be well-served by the leverage to rail against the negative advertisements that have hurt his chances, but without a clean record of his own, it’s hard to see how he’ll get a needed assist from the media in pushing back against Bain, tax returns, outsourcing, or whatever else. Perhaps Romney actually will be able to seize the high ground. If he can, it might really help his campaign.