There's been an interesting debate burbling under the surface the past few weeks over whether the Obama reelection team faces a condundrum in deciding to frame Mitt Romney primarily as a flip-flopper or as the standard-bearer for an extremist Republican Party. I'll walk through the debate before explaining why I think Chicago does face a messaging choice if Romney is the nominee, but of a different sort.
Ramesh Ponnuru got things kicked off early this month with a Business Week column that laid out the Obama campaign's early attacks on Romney as "lacking a core" but then went on to predict that the campaign would eventually shift to painting Romney as an extremist instead:
If Romney is that nominee, attacking his flip-flops will be a tempting strategy. Democrats could portray him as weak, untrustworthy and phony -- to suggest, as Plouffe did, that Romney is no leader. President George W. Bush used John Kerry’s flip-flops in just that way in 2004, and Kerry had fewer of them than Romney does.
But there’s another line of attack that will also be tempting: that Romney will govern as a right-wing extremist. That he yearns to dismantle environmental protections, slash Medicare and Social Security, ban abortion, and do the bidding of big business.
Obama can’t get both of these messages across simultaneously. He can’t make voters fear Romney’s positions while also telling them he is liable to change them whenever they prove unpopular. So he is going to have to choose which attack to make central to his campaign.
They will probably drop Plouffe’s line of criticism and go with the extremist charge, for three reasons. The first is that it packs more punch. Voters may well find a flip-flopper preferable to a failure. Republican attacks on Bill Clinton’s ideological flexibility may have reduced people’s respect for him, but they also sent the reassuring message that he wasn’t a dangerous zealot. Arguing that Romney has an extreme agenda, on the other hand, won’t give him a similar advantage with swing voters.
Second, the attack on Republicans as right-wing extremists is what the base of the Democratic Party wants to hear. They think Republicans are a bunch of ultraconservative lunatics; they want their leaders to say so; and they will be frustrated if they don’t. Catering to this desire will help Obama and his team keep the base motivated to vote.
Third, full Republican control of the government will be a possible result of the 2012 elections. If Republicans take the presidency, they are likely also to keep the House of Representatives and to win a majority in the Senate. If a Supreme Court vacancy materializes, they may well give the conservative bloc a clear majority that no longer depends on the swing vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
David Frum picked up on this line in a tweet yesterday: "How does DNC hope to sell idea BOTH that Romney believes in nothing AND that he's an extreme right-winger?" Which prompted Steve Benen to make the case that there is in fact less of a contradiction between the two frames than was being portrayed. First, he noted that in 2004, Republicans managed to cast Kerry both as a flip-flopper and as overly liberal. But then he went on to a broader point, that Democrats would be able to conceptually link the flip-flopper and extremist frame in the case of Romney:
In this case, Dems really aren’t telling voters that Romney is “an extreme right-winger”; rather, they’re telling voters that Romney is taking extreme right-wing positions because he’s a craven, shallow politician who’ll say anything to get elected. The right-wing facade is just a persona, which is different from previous versions of Romney, and may well be different from future versions of Romney.
Frum may believe that Democrats will present Romney to voters as a loon who appeals to the Republicans’ unhinged base, but I don’t think that’ll be the Dems’ message at all.
Indeed, the focus on flip-flops is really just part of a far more important theme: trust, or in this case, the lack thereof. It’s about establishing a reputation for Romney, defining him by his weakness: the Republican candidate is a coward who’s afraid to lead, afraid to tell the truth, afraid of core principles, and afraid to be consistent. The point isn’t to make Romney out to be an extremist; the point is to make Romney out to be someone who is so lacking in a fundamental integrity, he’ll say anything to anyone to advance his ambitions, depending on how the winds are blowing at the time.
I agree with Steve on this. But I also think that this debate is overlooking the other potential frame for attacking Romney, as a plutocrat who made a quarter-billion or so in a business known for cold-hearted layoffs, who is showing no compunction about allying himself with the likes of Steve Schwarzman, and who personally benefits from a skewed tax system that, by some estimates, has his own millions taxed at no more than 15 percent. Even the conservative Union Leader of New Hampshire has noted that this attack packs punch in an era of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. It would not be hard to imagine what the attacks would look like -- Ted Kennedy's team drew them up 17 years ago.
The plutocrat attack would not necessarily be in conceptual conflict with portraying Romney as a flip-flopper. But choices would still have to be made about which message to prioritize, which to use when and where. Presumably, the "lacking a core" frame is more potent now, as the Democrats seek to sow doubts about Romney among GOP voters. But that frame could become less productive during the general election, if, despite what Benen persuasively argues, it serves to reassure some independent voters that Romney will flip back to moderation in the White House. At that point, the plutocratic message could emerge as the more powerful one, especially in beleaguered battlegrounds like Ohio.
But that's just my armchair view. What do you all think?