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The Daily Debate - 7/25/2012

By Robert Tracinski

The Daily Debate

edited by Robert Tracinski

Brought to you by RealClearPolitics.

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July 25, 2012

1. Can Romney Break Out?

2. If You're Explaining, You're Losing

3. The Side Issue

4. Around the RealClear Universe


1. Can Romney Break Out?

The Obama campaign has unloaded a massive negative advertising campaign against Mitt Romney. Obama campaign manager David Axelrod denies this, saying that voters perceive Obama to be running a negative campaign "because the Romney campaign and their friends in the Super PAC world have just spent tens and tens of millions of dollars specifically on spots accusing Obama of running a negative campaign." An incredulous Joe Scarborough sums up this argument: "So, it's not you're negative ads, it's their negative ads accusing you of being negative." Uh-huh.

It is generally acknowledged that the negative campaign is not working, though Alec MacGillis presents evidence that the negative ads are working with a narrow slice of "true independents"—so long as Romney's own ads don't counteract those claims by defining him in a more positive way.

Better evidence, I think, can be inferred from the fact that the Obama campaign seems to have moved on from attacks over Romney's business record and tax returns and is now promoting the idea of the election as an ideological "choice," with Romney cast as the representative of what Carter Eskew describes as "the failed top-down policies of the past."

This new "choice" ad is being hyped by the left as the thing that will change the course of the election. Then again, the Republicans can claim that it is Obama who represents "the failed top-down policies of the past"—with "top-down," in this case, referring to central planning.

Paul Ryan, for one, seems glad to make this election a philosophical choice, in an article framing it as a clash between individualism and collectivism (though not in terms as clear as he should be capable of, given his familiarity with the ultimate advocate on that theme, Ayn Rand).

"Government can help create the space for innovation and prosperity, but government does not fill that space....

"The moral case for individual initiative in a free economy holds that people have a God-given right to use their creativity to produce things that improve our lives.... The president's collective vision of a government-centered society—reflected in his troubling rhetoric and failed policies—divides class against class and belittles fair rewards for workers, entrepreneurs, and investors—America's real builders."

But only Mitt Romney can really carry his end of this debate—and promote a positive story about himself and what he stands for.

Maureen Dowd criticizes Romney for being "secretive" about his past. Dowd is a bit partisan—is she equally upset about Obama's "composite girlfriend"?—and more than that, she is a storyteller, and not in a good way. She's one of those writers who sees a good theme and goes for it, even if it's overblown. But there is a point behind her central complaint.

"As Maggie Haberman observed in Politico, Romney has made a calculated decision to hide three major elements of his background: his Mormonism, his record at Bain, and his time as governor. This creates, she wrote, 'a kind of self-imposed paralysis on biographical messaging that some observers, including Republicans, say may wound his campaign in an era in which voters want to achieve a kind of unprecedented intimacy with their candidates.'”

All of this is integrated by a brilliant analysis from RCP's Sean Trende that sums up the current state of the race. Trende cites some very revealing results from a new Pew poll.

"First, by a 90 percent to 8 percent margin, registered voters say that they already pretty much know what they need to know about President Obama.

"Second, by a 69 percent to 28 percent margin, these voters say that they already pretty much know what they need to know about Romney. In other words, three times as many voters are still evaluating the presumptive GOP nominee as are evaluating the president."

He then connects this to the idea of the election as a "referendum" on the incumbent or a "choice" between the incumbent and the challenger.

"In the referendum model of the election, voters ask themselves two questions: First, do I want the president to be re-elected? Second, is the challenger so unacceptable that I simply can't bring myself to vote for him?

"The Pew poll suggests that the vast majority of voters are not carefully weighing the two choices, as the 'choice' model would suggest. Instead, they have already made up their mind about the president. Given Obama's persistent polling below 50 percent, especially among independents, we might surmise that it is a net negative verdict."

By the same token, they haven't made up their minds yet to go with Romney, which is why he hasn't been able to pull into the lead in the polls. Trende describes what Romney needs to do to break out.

"Although voters always say this but rarely mean it, they really do want Romney to go positive. They are interested in learning about his accomplishments (or lack thereof), especially during his term as governor.

"While the Obama camp has been trying to give voters what they want, albeit from a negative perspective (and perhaps part of why Obama hasn't moved the polls with his blitz is that those voters who are interested in Bain and Romney's taxes are waiting to hear Romney's side of the story), the Romney camp and his super PAC supporters have been banging their collective heads against a wall essentially trying to re-convince voters that the president is not doing a good job. Simply put, this won't do it.

"It is a real question whether the Romney campaign gets this. Throughout the primary process, it focused relentlessly on tearing down its opponents. Thus far, it has done the same in the general election....

"Regardless, these are parts of his biography that simply must be filled in if Romney wants to win, along with his activities turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics."

Maybe the Romney campaign has been unable to do this, and maybe they've just been waiting and holding their fire. We'll soon find out, because if Romney wants to make a positive case for himself, he will have a month of good opportunities to do so, beginning with his appearance this weekend at the opening ceremony of the Olympics.


2. If You're Explaining, You're Losing

As for the negative campaign against Obama, the Romney campaign has that well in hand, thanks to the "you didn't build that" gaffe. The most significant indication of how damaging this has been to the re-election campaign is the fact that Obama has felt the need to respond to it. The natural reaction to a gaffe like this is to ignore it and hope it will go away—not to perpetuate it by responding to it. You only do that if you think the issue is not going away and you have to find some way to blunt it. But explanations in the form of "what I really meant to say was" don't tend to be very effective. As they say, if you're explaining, you're losing.

Meanwhile, Michael Medved makes the case for why he thinks the Obama campaign is in trouble.

"[O]ne of the few iron rules of U.S. politics indicates he'll lose his bid for a second term. History offers not one example of a chief executive whose popular appeal declined during his first term of office but nonetheless managed to eke out a re-election victory, as Obama proposes to do. Among the 24 elected presidents who sought second terms, all 15 who earned back-to-back victories drew more support in bids for re-election than they did in their previous campaigns."

He also points out that there are no prominent individuals who have switched sides in Obama's favor since the last election, something that even George W. Bush benefited from in his re-election bid.


3. The Side Issue

On the Republican side, the worry about the Romney campaign is that it will be too cautious, preferring to pile on criticisms of an embattled president, but not wanting to stick their necks out by talking too much about the biography of the challenger, and definitely not taking the risk of staking out specific positions on the issues.

Thus, Romney has been getting headlines on foreign policy by criticizing Obama for White House national security leaks designed to make the president look good, as well as the administration's low-key, "lead-from-behind" approach to Syria.

RCP's Scott Conroy reports on the Syria critique.

"Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, characterized Romney's stance on Syria as 'extremely vague.'

“'Romney doesn't have a Syria policy, and he won't have one anytime soon,' he said.

"Hamid, a vocal supporter of direct American military intervention in that troubled nation, added that Romney's tough rhetoric on the issue was nonetheless significant. 'The difference in tone is important,' he said. 'I think if Romney was president today, there would be more pressure on him to intervene militarily because his support base is different, and there's generally more support for military intervention in Republican circles.'"

The way I would put it is that the Romney campaign's assumption is that specific policy proposals are less important than arguing that Romney's overall attitude and sympathies are different from Obama's—that his heart is in the right place, so to speak. That seems to be their approach across the board, e.g., that it's less important for him to have a specific tax reform plan than it is for him to show that he thinks entrepreneurs built their own businesses. And it's definitely their approach to a side issue like foreign policy.


4. Around the RealClear Universe

There's much more on the main page at RealClearPolitics, and here are some highlights and sidelights from around the RealClear universe.

RealClearMarkets links to an article asking whether a Romney victory would be good for the stock market—though the author notes that this is a different thing from asking whether Romney would be good for the economy over the long term.

RealClearWorld links to Tom Friedman's pithy summary of the direction of events in Damascus: "Syria Is Iraq." Friedman writes: "You can't go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes—a war of all against all—unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America.... And Iraq was such a bitter experience for America that we prefer never to speak of it again."

RealClearPolicy and RealClearTechnology both link to articles pushing back against L. Gordon Crovitz's recent article questioning the government's role in the development of the Internet. The Policy piece is here and the Technology piece is here.

RealClearTechnology also links to an interesting piece on how information technology is about to transform transportation.

RealClearScience links to an article on how anti-fracking activists have been appealing to bad (or nonexistent) science. It also links to an overview of the amusing but still unconfirmed reports on what would be the latest round in the U.S.-Iran cyber war: an "AC/DC virus" that commandeers the computers in Iranian nuclear laboratories and forces them to play one of the heavy metal band's hits at full volume. As they say in Italian, se non è vero, è ben trovato: it may not be true, but boy is it a good story.


—Robert Tracinski

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