Michael Tomasky on How Obama Needs to Make Mitt Unacceptable Again

The debate changed voters’ views of Romney—so Obama needs to make the case for rejecting him anew.

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On Tuesday morning, I wrote a post raising the question of whether the Obama campaign has the ability and smarts to counter this made-over Mitt Romney. Chicago knew how to run against Romney the right-wing panderer, but how do they run against the pseudo-centrist suitor? To me, this is absolutely the central question of this campaign going forward. I raised the question, but I didn’t answer it. So here’s my thought, and it’s pretty simple: Obama has to make Romney unacceptable again.

The bottom line of what happened in the debate is that Romney went from an unacceptable alternative for a lot of people to an acceptable alternative. Before the debate, Romney was a bumbling, stumbling plutocrat who seemed to have little idea what he was even doing. Boy, did that switch get flipped in 90 minutes (and in the after-commentary, which has no doubt helped him even more). People saw a guy who sounded reasonable. He was lying serially. But they don’t know that. It was Obama’s job to call him on all that. He didn’t. So Romney came off as a levelheaded fellow who looked like a president. Acceptable.

Question: Is it possible to make a guy who has crossed the acceptable threshold look unacceptable again? Well, first, it depends on how far across that threshold he is. If he’s vaulted miles across it, probably not. But if he’s just slithered across it, then yes. And I think Romney is still more the latter than the former.

Others disagree. There’s this conversation going on, even if somewhat subtextually, among liberals right now. On the one side are those with the view that these shifting voters were parked with Obama but just waiting for any excuse to desert him (because of the economy, chiefly), and now they have that excuse, so they’re gone. That’s the Eeyore School. The other school—what to call it? The Tigger School? Or perhaps name it after Pooh himself, with his quizzical faith in human (animal) nature?—thinks no, it isn’t that dark. People just saw one clearly superior debate performance, but it doesn’t mean they’re gone forever.

I’m a Poohist, but a concerned one. There seems to me a chance—a small chance at this point, but a chance—that the roof is caving in here. I don’t really buy this Michigan and Pennsylvania business; they’re solidly Democratic states in structural terms, and you’d think the bailout issue alone would finish off Romney in Michigan if the Democrats are using it the right way (possibly a big if). If the supposed tightening in those two states lasts into next week, though, that will be a very bad sign for Obama.

But as I say, my best guess right now is that the chance of that is small. It would surprise me if high percentages of these new Romney converts are deeply committed to him. They like what they heard. But if they hear what they heard being forcefully and pithily countered with other facts, they might think, “hey, wait a minute.”

Obama needs to make Mitt unacceptable again. On his tax plan. On loopholes. On his vagueness. On the promise that a huge tax cut will spur the economy and generate more revenue, which we heard before (and please, dude, mention the name Bush). On Medicare. Why is that so damn hard? Everybody keeps saying that’s hard. It is not hard. Bill Clinton did it. Then everyone keeps saying that only Clinton has the chops to do things like that. Nonsense. Here: “Governor, as you well know, that $716 billion is savings, not a cut. If you spend it as you propose, you’re just spending the Medicare trust fund down faster. You’re making Medicare go broke faster. It’s like taking money out of your child’s college fund before he gets to college. That’s maybe why your running mate agrees with me on this one. And you must know this. So either you don’t get how it works or you’re intentionally misleading people.”

On abortion rights. On equal pay. On contraceptive access. On the Supreme Court. On the environment. On clean air. On Republican failures over the years and why conservative dogma doesn’t work. On Bush economics vs. Clinton economics. On Detroit and the bailout. On what Romney did at Bain—maximizing profits whether doing so created jobs or killed them. On the 47 percent, to whom Romney “apologized” in the most staged and insincere manner possible.

In other words, there’s material.

There are two more crucial elements to making Romney unacceptable again. The first is for Obama to tell voters what he’ll do in a second term. Some say, “Oh, but the Republicans will just block everything.” He musn’t worry about that. People want to hear a vision, not legislative nose-counting. A jobs bill. Yes, he needs to keep pushing for that. A “balanced” approach to a budget deal, which polls far, far better than the GOP approach. A big immigration bill. A plan to protect Medicare and Social Security. And after that, he needs a couple of surprises, something we haven’t heard before, and something crafted to put the pseudo-centrist on the spot, so he has to choose and alienate either the middle or the base. Not. Rocket. Science.

And the second? Show some passion and breathe some fire. Fight. But in a particular way. Not for his own job. For a vision, and for the millions and millions of people who support him and are counting on him.

Most of this work has to be done in the second Obama–Romney debate. But some of it needs to be done on the stump, and in ads, and by Joe Biden on Thursday. The longer people think that Romney is acceptable, the harder it will be to dislodge the idea. The presidency is now on the line.