Date posted: Thursday, January 26, 2012
On using weakness as offense.
The gloves came off at Monday’s Republican debate, as Mitt Romney, fresh off a collapse to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, hammered the former House Speaker hard over his role as a “historian” for Freddie Mac. If any word has ever deserved the sardonic quotation marks, it is this one in this context. Gingrich’s company has earned $1.65 million from Freddie Mac. Gingrich’s explanation: “I offered strategic advice, largely based on my knowledge of history.” This is a little like Phil Jackson claiming he was never a basketball coach, merely a historian who used his knowledge of the game’s history to help teams strategize. Of course, neither the Los Angeles Lakers nor the Chicago Bulls ever foreclosed on anyone’s house.
It might seem strange that Romney pursued this charge, given that he has his own vulnerabilities in this department: he invested in Freddie Mac, several of his advisers lobbied for the company, and he has said that we should let the foreclosure process “run its course.” And it isn’t like there weren’t other avenues of attack available—this is Newt Gingrich we’re talking about.
Yet Romney’s broadside actually followed a strategy he has used frequently throughout his campaign: attacking his opponents where he himself seems weakest. To wit: Romney and his PAC have accused Gingrich of being too liberal, of flip-flopping, of supporting an individual mandate in health care, of supporting taxpayer funding for some abortions. He has claimed that President Obama is out of touch with the common American, comparing him to Marie Antoinette. And Romney has also preempted attacks on his potential weaknesses by bragging about them. Rather than shy away from his time at Bain Capital, he claimed—inaccurately, it turns out—that he helped create 100,000 jobs.
As they say, the best defense is a good offense.
What’s interesting is that if Obama’s State Of The Union speech on Tuesday night was any indication, the President is using the same sort of tactics. The economy is where many pundits view Obama to be the weakest, given high unemployment, his string of foreign policy successes, and his administration’s lack of any real scandals. Yet this is exactly where Obama went on the offensive, tying America’s economic struggles into a harsh critique of growing inequality: “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” he said.
In a late-November ad that just about everyone noted was misleading, Romney claimed that Obama doesn’t want to talk about the economy. Actually, I sense that Obama doesn’t mind this conversation. Not that he wants to have it, mind you; the weak economy is a very real threat to his reelection chances, and if it was humming along, there would be no need for a discussion, and barely need for an election, either—Obama would be a shoo-in. But Obama is perfectly willing to talk about the economy, so long as it is wrapped up in a larger conversation about tax and financial reform, Wall Street, fairness, and inequality.
Republicans want these latter topics to be off limits, and with good reason. They are losing issues for the right. Wall Street is not popular. Raising taxes on the rich is a political winner, even among Republican voters. One recent poll suggests that Romney may have a “wealth problem.”
Hence the Republican establishment going apeshit when Gingrich and Rick Perry tried to make Romney’s work at Bain an issue.
Hence Romney insisting that inequality should only be discussed in “quiet rooms.”
Hence House Leader John Boehner protesting that Obama “running on the politics of division and envy is—to me it’s almost un-American.” (The use of “almost” creates quite the clever insult template, doesn’t it? Individual X is almost [insert serious charge.])
Hence Obama, in the SOTU, saying that Republicans can cry class warfare all they want—it’s not going to stop him.
Hence Mitch Daniels, who gave the Republicans’ SOTU response, claiming that “No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others.”
What we are witnessing is the beginning of a turf war, if you will, over which topics are fair game this election season and which should be relegated to those quiet rooms.
Of course, this may all become less relevant if the economy rapidly improves. Or if unexpected events in foreign policy or national security shake up the electorate’s focus. Or if Gingrich somehow wins the nomination. That is possible, after several strong debate performances helped carry him to a win in South Carolina. After Monday’s debate in Tampa, Gingrich complained that the audience had not been permitted to participate. If this seems like a petty concern, consider that A) Newt really does feed off a crowd, and B) this is a man who once complained that he had to sit in the back of Air Force One on the way to Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. Will the crowd be permitted to cheer and boo in tonight’s debate in Jacksonville? Will it respond to Gingrich? Either way, something tells me Newt will be fine, so long as there is a moderator present whom he can berate.[pinit]