OP-EDS & REVIEWS
By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-12-12
A crisis is looming for political reporters desperate for a drawn out, dramatic presidential campaign. Republican voters may be less crazy and more predictable than the conventional wisdom suggests. If Mitt Romney continues his winning streak because Republicans realize he is the most electable candidate, we might have a much abbreviated presidential nominating season thanks to voters making a rational, non-doctrinaire decision.
Anxious to keep things going, programmed for conflict, reporters have tried to place a big asterisk on Romney’s New Hampshire victory, warning that the emergence of Republicans criticizing his time at Bain Capital proves that in the week he won Romney also witnessed that which will guarantee his loss to President Barack Obama in November. History suggests otherwise. Hashing the issue out now just might inoculate Romney against succumbing to the attack in the general election.
The historical analogy most worrying to the Romney camp comes from the 1988 campaign, when George H.W. Bush decided to “go negative” after discovering he trailed behind Michael Dukakis by 17 points in the polls and was saddled with a “negative rating” of 40 percent, twice that of his opponent. In a move that would become legendary in the annals of political consultants, Bush’s campaign director Lee Atwater gave his director of research James Pinkerton a three-by-five card and said: “You get the stuff to beat this little bastard and put it on this three-by-five card.” One of the negatives Pinkerton discovered was an issue Al Gore had raised during the Democratic primary campaign—the prison furlough program that enabled a convicted murderer to rape a woman and terrorize her fiancée—and the devastating Willie Horton attack ad followed.
But there’s a flip side to this tale. In both 1992 and 2008, primary attacks against Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as unpleasant as they were during the time, ended up being defused by the general election. In 1992 the Gennifer Flowers adultery allegations and the Vietnam draft dodging charge had largely lost their sting by the Democratic Convention. In 2008 Barack Obama brilliantly dispatched the Jeremiah Wright problem in March, so that it was not much of a factor in the fall.
In fact, John Kerry might have become president in 2004 had his primary opponents done a better job of attacking him more viciously. When Kerry ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004, he ran as a war hero and was treated as such. The Republicans “Swift Boated” him effectively during the general campaign, turning his war record into a liability. Had Democrats tried that tack during the primary, Kerry might have been able to pull the patriot card on them and deflected the attack—just as Romney has to continue pulling the capitalist card on Republican critics, to squelch the criticism and try to unite his party behind free market values.
The Swift Boat campaign could inspire a great attack and a great defense on the Bain Consulting issue. The Swift Boat campaign was so effective because the attackers mobilized dozen of fellow veterans, who stood there condemning Kerry. If I were running against Romney, I would look to get as many individual, heartbreaking stories of job loss on tape, and then try to get as many of his victims as I could together in a room for a day of melodramatic, tear-jerking filming. If I were running Romney’s, I would look to get as many individual, heartwarming stories of job creation on tape, and then try to get as many of his beneficiaries as I could together in a room for a day of melodramatic tear-jerking, filming.
Romney has to look at these attacks as opportunities—to preempt attacks that might appear again from Democrats and to strut his stuff, as they say. Attack ads are sometimes just what a candidate needs to come to life. Romney has to demonstrate that he is winning these primaries because of his skills and vision, and not simply backing into the nomination, if indeed, he is “the one.”