The Corner

Are Republicans Fooling Themselves?

Overall, the Democrats put on an effective show. With the possible exception of the McGovern convention, this was the most left-leaning Democratic gathering in memory. Some of that may have been counterproductive, particularly on social issues. To the extent that Republicans dismiss this convention as either a failure or relatively meaningless, however, I think we’re fooling ourselves.

This election could go either way. If Obama squeaks by, he will have done so with the help of a Democratic party that has taken a large, open, and disturbingly leftist turn. I think we’re missing the significance of that. It is completely accurate to say that the Democrats are pushing a bogus reformulation of the American way of life — slapping a bunch of flags on their Julia ad and turning classic conceptions of civic and religious community into covers for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is becoming the new normal in this country, and Obama and his convention have only helped to cement the change.

Conservatives can puncture these arguments all we like, but we can’t cut through the media filter. More than that, the conservative case can’t break through the left-controlled education system that has profoundly shaped the Millennials. True, youth unemployment is giving many second thoughts about Obama, yet it’s been more a matter of sapping Millennial enthusiasm than of changing attitudes and ideas.

Do demographics doom the expansive liberal welfare state, regardless? In some sense, they do. Yet if Obama is in the driver’s seat as our fiscal woes mount, he will use the crisis to further his restructuring. California is our advance guard — our Greece — yet their budget crisis is two months away from prompting one of the boldest redistributionist transformations this country has seen in years (even if barely anyone knows it yet).

#more#Only the Romney campaign can cut through the cultural, educational, and media filters and force a debate over the Obama Democrats’ bogus redefinition of the American dream. The media can ignore what conservatives say, but they still have to cover the candidate. With the exception of his welfare ads, however, the Romney campaign has avoided an assault on Obama’s ideology. Romney’s entirely plausible strategy is to downplay the ideological battle (Ryan nomination notwithstanding).

As the Romney campaign sees it, the tiny sliver of remaining undecided voters consists of mildly disillusioned former Obama supporters, or at least voters who personally like Obama. Coaxing these folks to “break up” with their erstwhile beau means not making them feel like they were fools to buy into Obama’s vision to begin with. That cuts against any effort to unmask the president’s overweening leftist ambitions. Let’s just say that the president’s a nice guy who’s in over his head instead.

Okay, but Michelle Obama did a very effective job of pressing undecideds to give her nice-guy another try. And the convention as a whole did a better job of redefining government as nice-guyism writ large than Republicans would like to admit. Charles Krauthammer says that the counter to all this is exposing Obama as “a deeply committed social democrat” using his presidential power to enact the same “ambitious left-wing agenda” he “developed in his youth.” Well, yes. So far as I can tell, however, this sort of argument is the last thing the Romney campaign wants to make right now. Don’t want to drive away that tiny sliver of Obama’s wavering admirers.

I can’t say for certain that Romney’s strategy is wrong. But I do think it’s far riskier than we realize. Treating Obama as a nice guy in over his head, rather than a smart leftist who knows exactly what he’s doing, leaves the Democrats’ bogus narrative about government unanswered. America is changing, and Republicans are naive to rely on the public to simply recognize the problems in the Democrats’ claims without significant help from our nominee.

Republicans won big in 2010 by defining Obama as an overweening ideologue. Yet that was the Tea Party’s doing, not the Republican establishment. In those days, Romney even jumped on the tea-party bandwagon with some surprisingly cutting observations about Obama’s leftism. Obama may not have pivoted after the 2010 election, but Republicans did. They toned down their attacks on the president’s ideology, and to some extent helped to build up the very wall of “likeability” they now fear to scale, even as the president rejected the Clintonian way and stayed to the left. Were Republicans smart to hold their fire? Romney did try out the argument that Obama is moving us toward European-style social democracy during the primaries, but he’s dropped that now in favor of the kinder and gentler “break up” approach.

Republican reticence on these issues has been going on for a while. Beginning with John McCain in 2008, the party establishment has done a weak job of challenging the core Democratic narrative of the causes of the financial crisis. Clinton laid the foundations of the subprime meltdown, and Obama himself was in on the ground floor of the fiasco. If the public is willing to cut Obama some slack for the economic problems he inherited, that is partly because we’ve allowed him to define the problem to begin with.

I don’t have access to the Romney campaign’s focus-group and survey data. Maybe they’re right to try to pry away those erstwhile Obama supporters in only the gentlest of ways. Yet I worry that the Romneyites are fooling themselves. Technocrats and fixers from a state where liberals dominate, they are neither inclined or prepared to show how the Obama Democrats are slowly redefining American exceptionalism into the European social democratic dream. Romney may squeak by on bad unemployment numbers and gentle coaxing of undecideds, but patriotic veneer the Democrats have managed to slap on their leftism is worrisome. If Obama wins, it will be because we allowed him to get away with it.


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