Obama Tries to Square the Circle

by Michael Potemra

The Morning Joe gang were discussing a few minutes ago the tricky problem the Obama campaign faces, in trying to shift from a criticism of Romney as a flip-flopping phony to one of Romney as a right-wing extremist. They obviously can’t have it both ways, right? I mean, the guy can’t be both an unprincipled empty suit and a dangerous ideologue? But I think they will actually try to do have it both ways, along the only lines that would make the argument in a non-self-contradictory way. A few days ago, Jonah Goldberg used a line in a column that stuck in my memory. Explaining to conservatives why Romney would be a not-bad president even if he weren’t really, deep down, a conservative — making what he called “an instrumental case” for Romney — Jonah wrote: “A President Romney would be on a very short leash. . . . If elected, Romney must follow through for conservatives and honor his vows to repeal Obamacare, implement Representative Paul Ryan’s agenda, and stay true to his pro-life commitments.”

That phrase “a very short leash” suggests the basic outline of the tack the Obama people will have to try: Romney is indeed an unprincipled person who has no core values, one who will do only what’s in his own interest. But as president, his interest would be to rubberstamp the agenda of some of the most extreme conservative elements in our country, the conservative 1 percenters who will have him on “a very short leash” etc. etc.

I think there are a number of reasons this won’t work. First, the key agenda items that Romney would have to deliver on to please conservatives are ones that are actually popular with the American people, certainly more popular than Obama’s key programs. Second, just one or two dissents on Romney’s part, forcefully delivered, on lower-priority conservative agenda items would be enough to reassure reasonable independents that the man will not be a mere water-carrier for conservative pressure groups (those on the farther left would not be convinced, but their votes were not really in play anyway). Third, that formulation — he’s a flip-flopper, but he won’t flip-flop as president, because powerful 1 percenters will tell him not to — is many degrees too complicated to be a compelling general-election argument. Put it this way: I would very much not want to be in the position of having to make it. I would much prefer having a simple and compelling argument. For example: He promised to heal the oceans but instead America’s in a swamp. That’s not good enough, and it’s time for a change. Simple; and it has the added benefit that every part of it is true.

I will not go so far as to outright predict that Governor Romney will win in November. But I think the conventional wisdom expressed by many a few months ago is even more correct today: Obama can’t win this election, but the Republicans can lose it. A couple of Romney gaffes could sink his campaign. But I’d rather be in his position, facing a failed incumbent, than in the shoes of the president, whose only hope is that the challenger commits some spectacular fumbles.