David Plouffe, an adviser to President Barack Obama, minced no words when he talked about Mitt Romney on “Meet the Press” last week. “He has no core,” Plouffe said. “You get the sense with Mitt Romney that, you know, if he thought he -- it was good to say the sky was green and the grass was blue to win an election, he’d say it.”
It’s not only Democrats who take this view of the former Massachusetts governor. Conservative columnist George Will recently blasted Romney as a “recidivist reviser of his principles” and claimed he was “becoming less electable” as a result. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who is also running, says that Romney is “unelectable against Barack Obama” because he is “on too many sides of the issues of the day.”
Romney’s history of flip-flopping is indeed extensive. He has changed positions on everything from global warming to abortion to gun control. But this record may not end up being the electoral liability that Plouffe and Will and Huntsman think.
We know that Obama can’t run a campaign based on his record of hypothetical accomplishments. (“Things would have been even worse without me!”) That’s a formula for defeat. He will have to run a negative campaign against the Republican nominee.
If Romney is that nominee, attacking his flip-flops will be a tempting strategy. Democrats could portray him as weak, untrustworthy and phony -- to suggest, as Plouffe did, that Romney is no leader. President George W. Bush used John Kerry’s flip-flops in just that way in 2004, and Kerry had fewer of them than Romney does.
But there’s another line of attack that will also be tempting: that Romney will govern as a right-wing extremist. That he yearns to dismantle environmental protections, slash Medicare and Social Security, ban abortion, and do the bidding of big business.
Obama can’t get both of these messages across simultaneously. He can’t make voters fear Romney’s positions while also telling them he is liable to change them whenever they prove unpopular. So he is going to have to choose which attack to make central to his campaign.
They will probably drop Plouffe’s line of criticism and go with the extremist charge, for three reasons. The first is that it packs more punch. Voters may well find a flip-flopper preferable to a failure. Republican attacks on Bill Clinton’s ideological flexibility may have reduced people’s respect for him, but they also sent the reassuring message that he wasn’t a dangerous zealot. Arguing that Romney has an extreme agenda, on the other hand, won’t give him a similar advantage with swing voters.
Second, the attack on Republicans as right-wing extremists is what the base of the Democratic Party wants to hear. They think Republicans are a bunch of ultraconservative lunatics; they want their leaders to say so; and they will be frustrated if they don’t. Catering to this desire will help Obama and his team keep the base motivated to vote.
Third, full Republican control of the government will be a possible result of the 2012 elections. If Republicans take the presidency, they are likely also to keep the House of Representatives and to win a majority in the Senate. If a Supreme Court vacancy materializes, they may well give the conservative bloc a clear majority that no longer depends on the swing vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The situation was different when Bush portrayed Kerry as a flip-flopper. Nobody really thought in the fall of 2004 that Democrats could take the House or the Senate. So unchecked liberal control of the government wasn’t a prospect that could be used to frighten voters.
Ideology, Not Character
It will be much more plausible for Democrats to warn next year about unchecked conservative control of the government. If they do, they will be hitting the Republicans where they are weak. There is a lot of evidence that voters have lost confidence in Obama, but little evidence that they have gained confidence in Republicans. In the most recent CNN, Gallup and ABC/Washington Post polls, a majority of Americans say that they have an unfavorable impression of Republicans. They may not think the GOP can be trusted to govern.
So the stage is set for a campaign based on ideology, not character. Running that kind of campaign carries a trade-off for Obama: He runs the risk that by painting Romney as a hard-core conservative, he will persuade conservatives who have doubts about the man to vote Republican. But that’s a risk worth taking, since their hostility to Obama may be enough of a motive to vote Republican already.
Romney’s reputation for ideological flexibility is hurting him in the primary -- although he is still better off having made his flip-flops. If he were still pro-choice and anti-guns, he wouldn’t be in contention. But those flip-flops won’t be a central issue in the general election, because Obama has good reasons not to make them one.
(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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