For all of us who have bemoaned President Obama’s strategic failures – his allowing “Blue Dog” Dems and Republicans to hijack health care reform, his shifting focus from jobs to deficits, and his defensiveness in extending tax cuts for the wealthy in December 2010 – his campaign team is running another another Hall of Fame quality campaign. They have Republican nominee Romney spending all of his time explaining tax returns, his tenure at Bain Capital, and his future
budget plans, while he ignores Obama’s vulnerability on the state of the economy. Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan was less about pleasing the Party’s base than about trying to shift the conversation away from the issues that Obama's campaign team have made this election about: yet by choosing the VP nominee with the most baggage and least political upside, Romney and the Republican Party fell completely into Obama’s trap.
Activists and politicians know that putting opponents on the defensive and framing the debate on your terms is often the key to success. We now have this essential strategy playing out in the biggest arena of all, the 2012 presidential race.
Romney on the Defensive
It’s hard to recall a single moment since securing the nomination that Mitt Romney has not been forced to play defense against the Obama campaign. Here we have a President facing a weak economy after four years, and an electorate that overwhelmingly believes the country is going in the wrong direction, yet all Romney talks about is why he need not release his tax returns, was not at Bain when layoffs and offshore deals occurred, and why his future budget will stimulate greater growth than Obama’s.
Remember when Republicans invented the “Selling of the President,” had a winning “Southern Strategy,” and used the bare-knuckles tactics of Lee Atwater to put Democrats on the defensive and win presidential elections? Those days are gone. Karl Rove’s status as political genius depended on a stolen 2000 election, and the millions he has spent through his American Crossroads Super PAC has utterly failed to shift Obama’s framing of the 2012 debate.
When Obama began focusing on Romney’s tax returns and Bain tenure, Republican strategists and much of the traditional media argued that these attacks meant little and would be “forgotten” once the “real campaign” began after Labor Day. That position never made sense, since Romney had refused to definitively resolve questions around both.
Now it’s clear that Romney understood he could spend every day until the November election addressing Obama’s talking points, and desperately needed to change the conversation. But instead of picking Senator Rob Portman – who would have directed the debate back to his swing-state Ohio base, Obama’s alleged deficiencies among white working-class voters, and other issues highlighting the weak national economy – Romney decided to try to beat the President on Obama’s own terms.
In other words, Romney picked Ryan to lay down the gauntlet to Obama: You want this election to be about the future rather than your record the past four years? Fine. Bring it on.
I cannot think of another presidential election where the winner won by winning a debate framed by their opponent.
That would be like George H. W. Bush in 1988 running on his ability to create jobs and move the economy while ignoring Mike Dukakis’ connections to polluted Boston Harbor, Willie Horton’s release, and the Democrat’s opposition to the death penalty. Or his son’s running against John Kerry in 2004 on his economic record, rather than on who could better fight terrorism.
Since 1960, the Republican Party has only won a single presidential election running on the issues that actually impact most Americans: Ronald Reagan in 1980. Mitt Romney cannot win an election running on Paul Ryan’s budget, and the fact that he is now committed to trying is testament to the Obama campaign’s incredible strategic success.
Romney’s Impossible Task
When the non-partisan Tax Policy Center announced that Romney’s tax plan reduced millionaires’ taxes while raising them for everyone else, Obama described it
on August 6 as “Robin Hood in Reverse.” Romney flailed away trying to respond, ending the week by selecting the VP nominee most vulnerable to such criticism.
It’s a classic case of pro-active strategies: getting an opponent so frazzled that they make even more missteps. Instead of Portman giving Romney a chance to refocus the election around Obama’s economic record, Ryan forces the entire Republican Party to stand behind a tax and budget plan that most Americans oppose and that Obama will target with laser beam precision through Election Day.
Romney faced long odds even with Portman as his running mate, but Ryan makes it an impossible task. Obama is too good a campaigner, and his campaign team too strong, to allow the campaign debate to shift back to the President’s greatest political vulnerabilities.
When “movement conservatives” argued that Romney’s selection of Ryan would “excite the base,” they ignored that the proponent of Medicare vouchers would really energize Democrats. We may learn after the election whether Obama intentionally sought to provoke Romney into making such a bad decision, but either way, Ryan’s selection ensures that the 2012 campaign will be framed exactly as the Obama campaign team wished.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.