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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Pushing “Moderate Mitt” Back Across That Threshold

In all the endless discussion of last week’s first presidential candidates’ debate, there has been a heavy emphasis on “style points”–Romney’s “crispness” and Obama’s “rambling;” Romney’s “empathy” and Obama’s “detachment;” Romney’s superior use of anecdotes, stronger physical “presence,” and higher “energy level.” And much of the advice being offered to Obama (and to Joe Biden, who debates Paul Ryan tonight) is similarly focused on the sizzle rather than the steak: be engaged, be aggressive, show some conviction, show some passion, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
While it’s difficult to determine what does and doesn’t matter in public perceptions of events like televised candidate debates, it is reasonably clear that for Mitt Romney, the strategic effect of the first debate was to reposition him as a plausible, “safe” alternative to Barack Obama for low-information “wrong-track” voters. As I argued yesterday at Washington Monthly, the illusion of “moderate Mitt” was quite an accomplishment, presenting Romney as the man with the five-point plan to revive the economy, who isn’t interested in divisive social issues and loves to work with Democrats, and just wants to give the public sector a nice, reforming tuck and trim.
To put it another way, for many voters with lukewarm attitudes towards Obama, and an inclination to embrace change, Romney, at least for a moment, crossed the threshold of acceptibility. The big challenge for Democrats is to push him back across it.
There is plenty of raw material at hand to do just that, particularly since–though this is an aspect of the “Moderate Mitt” phenomenon that eludes many MSM observers–Romney has not really modified the extremist agenda he was forced to embrace in order to secure the GOP presidential nomination. His “moderation” is mostly a matter of assertion, but must be refuted in some detail; simply calling him a liar or charlatan will easily melt in the undifferentiated impression of casual voters that all politicians lie and lie equally, and particularly lie about each other.
With three debates and more than three weeks remaining, however, Democrats must work to rebuild both sides of the “big choice” advantage Obama enjoyed immediately after the convention, re-establishing the sense that the president is fighting right along with middle-class Americans to bring the country back from where it stood four years ago, and re-identifying Romney as offering an extremist version of George W. Bush’s policy agenda. Again, Mitt has already reached the limit of what the ideological commissars of his party will allow him to do to resposition itself; it’s just a matter of offering a clear and consistent refutation of the idea that he’s a candidate of “safe change,” and not the vehicle for a radical right-wing strike at the great policy accomplishments of the 20th century.
Taking up this simple but difficult challenge should be the focus for Team Obama–not the stylistic observances of pundits who don’t know much and care even less about the substantive differences between the parties and candidates.

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