I don’t know if team Romney should be panicking just yet. Convention bounces have been known to fade; it’s not every week that Barack Obama is going to get Bill Clinton to give a barn-burner of a speech on his behalf that outdraws the NFL game on the other channel. In my view it’s not so much that the fundamental nature of the race has shifted as that it has solidified: Obama spent months being mostly just a little ahead, and now he’s a little more ahead than that. Lots of people have been writing in the last couple days about the larger Obama lead. But no one has yet turned attention to the consequences of that change: that Romney and Paul Ryan are likely to run the dirtiest campaign we’ve seen in a long, long time.
Go back in time a few months. The Romney theory, bruited by his aides and accepted by much of the media, was that all he had to do was talk about the economy and he’d win. There was no way an incumbent president sitting on these kinds of economic figures could possibly be reelected. Unemployed, underemployed, not even looking anymore, wrong direction … no question that they are all bleak figures. All Romney had to do was keep talking about them, and as they say in the East End, Robert’s your father’s brother.
This job was supposed to get even easier when Romney tapped Paul Ryan for veep. Ryan was the man with the plan, the Republican Brain, the guy who actually knew budgets and fiscal policy, the Republican who could slice right through all the Democratic pettifoggery and actually beat the Democrats at their own game of talking all those numbers. Ryan’s presence on the ticket made the economic choice that much more stark, the argument went, and he’d win over the serious-minded moderates.
Well. It’s exactly one month after Ryan’s selection was announced, and his reputation has gone nowhere but down. He’s a liar and his famous “numbers” actually make no sense at all because they’re intentionally misleading. So now he looks less like a serious budget person than a drunken back-bencher who has to be elbowed awake to cast a vote.
Then there are the past few days. We got a crappy jobs report Friday morning. Romney trotted out and said the kinds of things he was supposed to say. And lo and behold—it hasn’t hurt Obama a whit. In the days since the report—days, I should note, when media coverage has made it abundantly clear that the jobless rate fell only because more people quit looking for work—Obama has gained ground.
So two facts are now clear. One, Romney is on the ropes. The memo from his pollster makes a few plausible points about why it’s too early to head for the exits. But Romney has some serious problems in some key states, notably Ohio. If he can’t win there, he basically has to win all of the following swing states to hit 273 electoral votes: Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire.
And the second fact that’s clear is that the economic argument is not working. Turns out that it’s not enough just to repeat the dour news when you keep dodging questions about your own plan. And taken together, these two facts mean: Romney isn’t going to desert the economic argument, of course, but he is going to try to win this thing in other ways.
In other words, he has to run a kulturkampf campaign, at least to some extent. There is no way he’ll get the base sufficiently fired up otherwise. And if he feels over the next few weeks that he’s not getting through to undecideds on the economic issues, his campaign is going to conclude that they have to go all in on culture. But they can’t do abortion—this isn’t a GOP primary, for God’s sake. And they can’t do immigration. And now, apparently, they can’t even do gays, because marriage equality looks to be pretty popular.
If they can’t demonize slatternly women or Latinos or gay people, that pretty much leaves one group—a group the president happens to embody and represent pretty well. Romney hasn’t been shy about using race—see the dishonest welfare ads, or the mention of “Obamacare” before the NAACP, which, as I wrote at the time, was clearly designed so he’d be booed by the NAACP crowd, which would please certain other news consumers. (This was before Obama decided to “own” the word.)
As I’ve said many times, the ongoing debate about whether Romney is really conservative or really moderate has wasted lots of airtime and killed many innocent trees. He’s neither. He’s nothing. He’ll say or do whatever he needs to do, whatever the Koch brothers or whoever tell him to do. He’s been dreaming of the presidency since 1968, and as he sees it slipping through his fingers, he’ll be capable of anything. It’s going to be a nasty seven weeks.