Running Against Romney

By Mike Dorf

With Mitt Romney looking likely to become the Republican Presidential nominee, conventional wisdom holds that President Obama's campaign team faces a tough choice: whether to attack Romney as a flip-flopper or an out-of-touch plutocrat.  Here is how a recent NY Times article described the downside of the flip-flopper approach: "Independent voters might view Mr. Romney’s shifting positions as pragmatic. And by highlighting his evolving views, political analysts say, the Obama campaign risks unintentionally promoting the image of Mr. Romney as a moderate.  Yet the flip-flopper theme is so easy to sell, that it may be hard for the Obama team to resist.

The question is how to play the flip-flopper card without inadvertently reassuring independents that a President Romney would actually be a reasonable centrist.  The answer, I think, is to tie Romney's flip-flopping to his out-of-touch-rich-guy-ness.  In other words, the Obama team should not be thinking about choosing between the flip-flopper narrative and the plutocrat narrative but about how to combine the two narratives into a simple resonant package.

Of course I'm hardly an expert in such things but if I were on the campaign strategy team, the unifying general election theme I'd push would be this: Mitt Romney only cares about Mitt Romney.  The core idea would be that Romney is willing to say or do anything to promote his own interests.  In this approach, the flip-flopping manifests the political dimension to Romney's personal ambition, while the plutocrat-favoring shows the economic dimension.  One set of political ads would highlight the flip-flopping (as in the video above), while another would highlight the plutocrat side.  This second set of ads would probably look a bit like the following ad produced by a SuperPac that is sympathethic to the Gingrich campaign:

Except that the Obama/Democratic version would hit harder, because Gingrich's allies and other Republicans need to be careful not to appear to be attacking capitalism itself.  Obama and Democrats more generally also aren't hostile to capitalism but are much more comfortable campaigning as economic populists than any Republican can be.  Thus, the Democratic ads will certainly include bits from the following clips:


and then this gem from yesterday:

But the key is that in the general election campaign, both sets of ads -- the flip-flopper and the plutocrat ads -- would end with the same tag line: something like "Mitt Romney is only for Mitt Romney."  That way, one hopes, when independents see the flip-flopping ads, they're pulled back to the thought of Romney as greedy exploiter, not as pragmatist.

Will it work?  Who knows?  The ads will probably play a much smaller role in deciding the general election than the state of the economy will.  But I tend to agree with the view of Gingrich and Santorum that Romney's supposed electability is itself an untested proposition.