Mitt Romney was recently derided by the Obama campaign for his appearance with Donald Trump. Trump is supposed to be radioactive because of his stubborn insistence that the Obama birth certificate is inauthentic. Romney’s supporters, however, ignored the complaint and pointed instead to Obama’s ongoing ties with Al Sharpton — of Tawana Brawley infamy — and disgraced Wall Street manipulator and former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, who is bundling cash for the president’s reelection.
So far the campaign could be summed up as trivial tit for tat. Romney had a dog on his car; Obama once ate some dog. Romney is supported by supposed misogynist Rush Limbaugh; Obama got a million dollars from unapologetic misogynist Bill Maher. Romney had a great-grandfather who was a polygamist in Mexico; Obama’s father was a polygamist in Kenya. Romney was a profit-mongering capitalist whose Bain Capital strangled companies; Obama was an incompetent investor who squandered billions of taxpayers’ money on failed green companies. Romney is a square who avoided coke; Obama used to like a “little blow.” For every rumor about Mormonism, there is yet another unappreciated lunacy of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church. And on and on.
What to make of the puerile back and forth? It would be easy to tsk-tsk the shallowness of such kindergarten name-calling, which diverts attention from domestic and foreign policies. Or political observers could argue that the Obama campaign is successfully creating all sorts of diversions from a dismal economic record; in each instance Romney’s handlers are forced to take their eyes off 40 months of 8 percent–plus unemployment or 50 million people now on food stamps.
But there is a far better lesson from the Romney counterpunching: Apparently his campaign is not going to be a repeat of Mike Dukakis’s smiley-face efforts when knocked silly by the late Lee Atwater’s no-holds-barred management of George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign. Nor will 2012 prove anything like 2008, when John McCain took all sorts of issues off the table — from Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers to scrutiny of Obama’s memoirs. Note in this regard the frequency with which an increasingly desperate Obama is now praising the McCain campaign, in contrast to the supposed extremism of Romney — as if an incumbent president George H. W. Bush would have admonished a “war room” Bill Clinton to emulate the more noble tone of Dukakis’s failed effort.
Romney’s ostensible point, of course, is not to allow scurrilous stories to linger in the press. And he probably wants to create deterrence by warning the Obama campaign that for each petty story of a teenager pushed down by Romney a half-century ago, there will be a middle-school girl whom a younger Obama rudely pushed away — and that was according to Obama’s own telling.
But the real significance of firing back is not just to balance impressions with the general public or to warn Team Obama of the boomerang effect each time they offer up a new diversion. Instead, it is to remind the Republican base that Romney intends to go all out, and would rather win a bloody fight than lose in noble aloofness.
It was not McCain’s intention to alienate conservatives by his campaign style — again, now disingenuously cited by the Obama campaign as a model for bipartisan centrism — but that was surely the effect of his constant assertions of moral superiority. Each time McCain took an issue off the table or rebuked a zealous supporter, it had a depressing effect on his base, as if to say, “I want your support and your money, but not quite your crude self.”
When on occasion I have asked conservatives why they did not give to or work for McCain in 2008, almost none cited any policy differences. They had no complaint with McCain’s sometimes wooden campaigning style. Instead, it was a deep anger that, apparently, McCain felt that he would rather win the approval of the Washington Post editorial board or an NPR commentator than of those who really wanted him to win — he was harder on a sympathetic talk-show host than he was on Pastor Wright. Some cite the further irony that it was the often-rebuked conservative base that stood by McCain, not his natural moderate allies like Colin Powell, who jumped ship.
Similarly, when I now ask conservatives why they are keen on the suspect conservative Romney, they do not mention his “evolving” turn to the right. They say little about his “appearing presidential.” Instead, almost always they cite the fact that he ran a tough primary campaign that took apart those whom they actually preferred — Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, or Rick Santorum. In other words, conservatives most of all just want someone to fight back and not, like Bob Dole in 1996 or McCain in 2008, to lecture, lose, and return to the sober and judicious status quo in Washington.
So when Romney refused to disown the mercurial Trump, he sent quite the opposite message from McCain’s or Dole’s — something like “I don’t need the associate of Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, and Tony Rezko to tell me with whom to appear.” Apparently, each time Obama issues a “How dare you?” Romney is not going to point fingers at his own backers, but rather will fire back with a “How dare you dare me?”
Romney is taking the gamble that whatever damage may be done by his overzealous supporters is hardly commensurate with the damage of sanctimoniously castigating them in order to win approval from the press and the Obama campaign. In other words, Romney would prefer winning in 2012 to being praised by liberals in 2016 for running a model, but losing, campaign.
That fact alone — not litmus tests of his conservatism or assessments of his style — will be the dominating factor in the Romney campaign, and it will make 2012 quite unlike 2008.