Way Off

01.11.12

Michael Tomasky on Mitt Romney’s Outside Pitch

Some say Mitt’s victory speech in New Hampshire was a glimpse of his general-election strategy. That would be good news for Obama, because it was aimed too far to the right.

Mitt Romney received generally good notices for his victory speech in New Hampshire Tuesday night. Not raves, but good notices. Notably delivered at around 8:45, meaning that he forewent the usual tradition of letting all the losers speak first—a smart move; if you’re the winner, why not grab primetime for yourself?—the speech was about Barack Obama, not Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul. Mike Allen, writing in his “Playbook” Wednesday morning, quoted Time’s Mark Halperin as saying: “If, as appears quite likely, Romney is the Republican nominee, expect his acceptance speech at the party convention in Tampa to be like the one he gave Tuesday.” Which leads me to quote myself saying: “If true, that’s weird and not very smart, because that speech was pitched to the right-wing base, not voters in the middle.”

Romney’s attack on Obama (full text here) was four-pronged. First—duh—he has presided over a failed economy, and we can and must do better. Second, he “wants to put free enterprise on trial.” Third, he wants to turn America into a Euro-paradise for the shiftless and unmotivated. And fourth, Obama runs a foreign policy of appeasement (he used that word), while Romney will restore American greatness and so on.

Let’s break them down. The first line of attack is obvious and potentially quite effective, depending on the state of the economy this fall. But notably, it stands out for a more important reason: it’s the only argument of the four that is directed at all Americans generally, and at swing voters. It’s the only one that’s practical more than ideological. That section of the speech also includes within it the best applause line, the couplet about Obama having run out of ideas, and now let’s make 2012 “the year he runs out of time.”

Romney and his people are making the error conservatives often make—thinking that regular Americans share their paranoias and obsessions to a far greater extent than they do.

So that’s all right. The other three, though, are all aimed at the base. Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. Really? Most Americans don’t believe that, and most swing voters don’t believe that. That kind of thinking is strictly the province of Obama haters. It is within this rubric that Romney utters the line in which his campaign is about “saving the soul of America.” Oh, come on. Middle Americans don’t think, by and large, that Obama is a threat to the soul of America. That’s just dog-whistle stuff to the World Net Daily crowd. I used to cringe when John Kerry talked that way in 2004. I even kind of believed it about the Dubya crowd, but that doesn’t mean that I thought it was an effective argument to make to middle America, and if I didn’t think it then, I don’t think it now.

And on it goes. Obama “wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society ... This president takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America.” That’s a pretty good line, but again a mention of “Europe” in this kind of context is just more right-wing dog-whistling. And the fourth leg, about Obama’s “appeasement strategy” and the ways in which he allegedly “apologizes for America,” is straight out of talk-radio land—and is really about Israel and is thus a straightforward play for Jewish money.

As I listened to the speech, I kept imagining Romney trotting these lines out in a debate this fall, and picturing how easily rebuttable each would be:

1. “Oh really, Governor? Seems to me I helped save the free-enterprise system. At least, that’s what they’ll tell you in Detroit, and throughout the state of Michigan and other Midwestern states where millions of people’s jobs depend on the auto industry. You are the one who would have killed American free enterprise. GM and Chrysler would be out of business if it had been up to you.”

2. “Oh really, Governor? Well, if you want to call protecting Social Security and Medicare a Euro-fantasy, then fine, call it that. I call those programs two of the greatest achievements of American history. You are the one who, in endorsing Paul Ryan’s budget plan, wants to alter these programs beyond recognition, reducing benefits for future generations and making the elderly pay far, far more for their health care. I think most people in America’s cities and small towns are with me on this one.”

3. “Oh really, Governor? Why don’t you go explain to Osama bin Laden’s widows what an appeaser I am?”

Bing, bang, boom. Either Halperin is wrong, and Romney and his people are smart enough to know that they have a fair amount of base shoring-up to do before they can pivot toward the center, and his Tampa speech will actually be very different. Or Halperin is right, and Romney and his people are making the error conservatives and Republicans often make, thinking that regular Americans share their paranoias and obsessions to a far greater extent than they do.

So that leaves Romney’s first prong. At least it’s, you know, about the economy. As I will write in a future column, though, it may also be an ineffective mode of attack, depending on circumstances. Romney is looking very strong right now, but that’s largely thanks to the (so-called) competition and the economic conditions. The first circumstance will definitely change, and the second one is looking more and more like it might.