Romney and the Go-for-Broke Election

Why moderates should be alarmed

Here are the two great campaign mysteries at midsummer: Why does Mitt Romney appear to be getting so much traction from ripping a few of President Obama's words out of context? And why aren't Romney and other Republicans moving to the political center as the election approaches?

Both mysteries point to an important fact about the 2012 campaign: For conservatives, this is a go-for-broke election. They and a Republican Party now under their control hope to eke out a narrow victory in November on the basis of a quite radical program that includes more tax cuts for the rich, deep reductions in domestic spending, big increases in military spending, and a sharp rollback in government regulation.

In the process, the right hopes to redefine middle-of-the-road policies as "left wing," thereby altering the balance in the American political debate.

What should alarm both liberals and moderates is that this is the rare election in which such a strategy has a chance of succeeding. Conservatives have their opening not because the country has moved far to the right but courtesy of economic discontent, partisan polarization and the right's success in defining Obama as standing well to the left of where he actually does.

The Obama campaign is trying to disrupt this narrative on multiple fronts. Why did Obama respond so quickly and forcefully to Romney's effort to use the president's "you didn't build that" quotation as a way of casting him as an enemy of small business? It's not that the attack was true. In fact, it was blatantly false, given that in the same speech Obama praised "hard work," "responsibility" and "individual initiative."

The words did, however, play to a stereotype of Obama as an advocate of big government who mistrusts business. The distortion resonated, said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, because key voter groups that Romney is trying to win suspect the four words reflect "secretly what he [Obama] believes."

Moreover, Republicans want to recast the Obama campaign's most effective line of attack -- that Romney is a very wealthy out-of-touch financier who "pioneered" the outsourcing of jobs, kept a lot of money in foreign accounts, and refuses to release additional tax returns -- as being less about Romney than about the president's supposed hostility to "success" and to business. Much is riding on the interpretation (or willful misinterpretation) of a short sentence in a long speech.

The go-for-broke strategy has a chance for another reason: In this election, the number of genuine, middle-of-the-road swing voters is very small. For both candidates, this puts a premium not only on high turnout among party base groups but also on very large victory margins within them. McInturff thinks we may be moving from an electoral model based on swing or undecided voters to a world of what he calls "committed versus elastic" voter groups.

For example, it is widely agreed that white working-class voters will support Romney. But much depends upon Romney's margin among them. If Obama holds Romney's lead in the white working class to around 15 points, he likely wins. Romney can win if he pushes his advantage with these less well-off voters to 25 points or more. Obama's Bain/tax returns offensive against Romney is aimed directly at this constituency.

Similarly, Romney will lose the Latino vote by a landslide. But holding his deficit to, say, 30 points instead of 40 will matter. And by portraying Obama as anti-business, McInturff said, Romney could gain ground among college-educated white men. In the pollster's terms, what matters is the "elasticity" in all these constituencies.

The potential flaw in the conservative strategy could turn out to be reality itself. Obama's actual record is neither left wing nor anti-business. Public opinion is strongly hostile to many items on the conservative agenda. Most voters, for example, reject the idea that more tax cuts for the wealthy are central to future prosperity. Much of the domestic spending that Republicans would reduce has strong support, one reason Romney avoids budget specifics.

Republicans want to play down the implications of what they would do in power and paint Obama as someone he isn't. Normally, this strategy wouldn't work. But this is a moment when abnormal levels of economic turmoil are feeding a profound mistrust of government. Conservatives are making a large bet that if ever there was a year when they could mainstream out-of-the-mainstream ideas, this is it.

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group 

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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I'm frustrated that Obama did such a poor job with the point he was trying to make in the speech in question.  Progressive taxation (supported by notables from Adam Smith to Theodore Roosevelt) is warranted because, the higher one goes on the economic food chain, the greater the debt to government for financial success.

Businesses depend not only on roads and bridges, but an educated workforce, enforcement of contracts and protection of intelletual property, communications and shipping infrastructure, and an educated and successful base of clients and customers which has the cash to purchase goods and services from the businesses, among many other things.  These apply to even seemingly self-made, independent business people, from artists to contractors to professionals.

Everyone pays taxes.  The biggest part of government spending is entitlements.   Who pays social security/medicare taxes?  Everyone.  Even a great many "illegals."  And it's a monstrously regressive tax.  This regressive tax was raised, under Reagan, at the same time that the taxes for the wealthy were drastically cut.  So poor people subsidized rich people's tax cuts, as social security was running a huge surplus at the time.Obama wants to go back to the 1990s, to reduce the federal deficit, with regard to tax rates of the top 2%.  EXACTLY the position he took in his 2008 Presidential campaign. And those tax rates were the ones voted into place in the 1990s by the GOP congress.   Obama is not promoting "class warfare."  He's defending progressive taxation.  Just as Adam Smith did.  Just as Theodore Roosevelt did.  And he's promoting the same top tax rates that the GOP voted for in the 1990s.

Can't people in the Obama administration and Obama campaign figure out a way to communicate the above in a way which could be readily understood by the average voter?

"You didn't build that" was an unforced error.  We are shocked, SHOCKED that Obama's political opponents play gotcha games with it?

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA


What is it about Obama that some people hate so much?  Why would Nathan Addleson from Las Vegas commit $100,000,000 to defeat him?  One of the most amazing stories of our time is the amount of mega-donors that are rushing to defeat the President.  Are they really attempting to radically change the political and economic culture.  They seem to be very short-sighted and all of them disciples of Ayn Rand unable to see beyond the end of their own noses.  They must be truly frightened of what is happening / or not happening to react so strongly.  They have declared war and are deploying all resources to win.  I really cannot for the life of me, understand their reasoning or lack thereof. 


Elections are about voting people out, not in.  If people didn't dislike Obama, they wouldn't vote for Romney, and vice-versa.  Partisans hate and distort - it's the nature of partisanship.  Electioneering is always oversimplified and loose with the truth.  Image.  Paint Romney as a bumbling plutocrat and Obama as a closet socialist.  How could it be otherwise?

Romney bluffed his way through the false residency and state tax issues as Gov of Massachusetts and he still thinks he can bluff his way through the no income tax disclosure in this election.. When his candidacy crashes with the no income tax disclosure, the million dollar donors will squawk to high heaven that a candidate with such a vulnerability would have both the nerve and a  no shame stance to even run. Romney will make John Edwards look like a loser in the  no-shame contest.      

Charles the word is Indictment(s). Many of the big money crooks will go down if Obama is re-elected. He has given them a four year "grace" period to clean up their act(s). They obviously haven't. 

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