Steve Kornacki’s piece at Salon today on two of Romney’s biggest weaknesses lays out some of the common wisdom that’s forming around Mitt Romney. One, which I think is indisputable, is that Romney’s position as an unthinking member of the 1% is going to hurt him. Voters aren’t just that interested in someone who has lived in a bubble of absolute luxury his whole life, the kind of guy who owns a car elevator, for fuck’s sake. At least not one who backs that image up by pushing conservative policies that are aimed primarily at stripping away the social safety net on the grounds that America can’t afford it. This country has people who can afford car elevators. We can afford to not let innocent people die from lack of decent health care.
But the other bit of common wisdom that’s shaping up is one I’m more skeptical of: That Romneycare will hurt Romney, because it opens him up to charges of flip-flopping.
Will the circumstances of Romney’s early July flip-flop end up mattering in November? Probably not. But the episode underscored how uncomfortable healthcare can be for Romney if he’s pressed on it – as he probably will be by Obama when they debate this fall. John Kerry’s experience running against George W. Bush comes to mind here. For all of the criticisms Kerry leveled against Bush over his conduct of the Iraq war, Bush was always able to point out that Kerry himself had voted for the war. In the same way, anytime Romney rails against the ACA, Obama will be able to reply, “Gee, Mitt, where do you think I got the idea?”
My problem with this narrative is that a winning campaign strategy has to either motivate your voting base or convince swing voters (preferably both, which the Romney-is-out-of-touch will do). But digs about Romneycare probably won’t do either. It may even de-motivate the base, because it suggests Romney is more moderate than he actually is, leading some liberals to figure it doesn’t matter that much if they vote this time around.
As for the swing voters, well, the problem is understanding the dig requires two steps. You first have to understand that Romney passed basically the same bill as Obama, and then you have to understand that he’s going back on it. My feeling about swing voters is they have to be handled like you would a kindergarten class; anything too complex, and they’re going to go running off into a field of butterflies, or drop to the floor and start picking their nose. One-step appeals work best, especially if they don’t involve complex legislation that stimulates the “Ugh, I don’t care, it’s too hard” thinking that causes one to be the kind of person that’s undecided the day before an election.
The notion that Kerry lost in ’04 because of the term “flip-flopper” is one of those bits of common wisdom that don’t really mesh well with history. Bush won what had been a tight election through a series of ads and political attacks that focused on the idea that Kerry was a weakling who would allow the country to be taken over by terrorists. Insofar as the “flip-flopper” term had any value, it’s because it supported this narrative by painting Kerry as the kind of guy who vacillates in the face of terrorism, as opposed to Bush, who was painted as a take-no-prisoners-style cowboy. The public’s attitudes about the war in Iraq were only just starting to go sour, and they were easily snatched back into the fold with some old-fashioned fear-mongering. Flinging “flip-flopper” at Romney just makes him seem like a guy who’s more amendable to liberal ideas, which in turn supports the image he’s trying to create, as a moderate.
Not that I think there’s no value to it. In a debate, Obama will be served well to smile indulgently, point out the history, and push Romney into a rebuttal where he stammers or acts the fool. This will win over swing voters not because they bothered to grasp the complex narrative here, but because it makes Obama look like a winner. But as a part of the overall campaign strategy, I don’t see it as a good priority.