Is Mitt Romney about to launch a campaign based on Bill Ayers, cocaine and other favorites of the conservative — well, it’s too big to really be a fringe, even if it does act like one. Is he? And if so, is it because he’s reacting to the Bain and taxes personal hits from President Obama’s campaign?
All this started with a quote given by a Romney “campaign adviser” to Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins, who wrote up a story about how Romney was about to “take the gloves off.” Reporters and liberal bloggers are interpreting it as a reaction, perhaps a personal one, to Obama’s attacks. So Dave Weigel says that it “tells us how much the Obama campaign has gotten into Romney’s head;” Jonathan Chait thinks that it shows how much the Bain attacks “rattle Romney and his campaign”; Andrew Sullivan calls it “panic time among the Romneyites.”
Obama is unquestionably running a tough campaign, but if Romney is losing his cool over questions about his taxes and his stewardship of Bain Capital, he’s showing that he’s not ready for the big leagues. Wild countercharges about Obama’s teenage drug use will only confirm that. It's obvious that Obama is hoping to get under Romney’s skin and provoke him into doing something stupid, and right now it looks like Romney may be about to take the bait.
On the other hand, I’ll propose a different theory. Remember: There are at least two media spaces out there: the regular one and the conservative feedback loop. The latter needs to be tended to, just as the regular one does. And what can Team Romney give them? Probably not a running mate; the logic for a dull choice such as Tim Pawlenty is too strong. Not policy, or at least not more policy than he’s already given them — and even subjects, whether it’s abortion or some of his more extreme foreign policy statements or the Ryan budget, aren’t really what he wants to talk about to swing voters.
No, the main thing that Romney can give without hurting himself elsewhere is: attitude.
Not that I’m saying anything new here; this is exactly why candidates “dog whistle”: to reassure their party’s strongest supporters or perhaps some particular group, of close ties, even when it would be awkward to spell out those ties in detail.
So we’ll see. It’s pretty cost-free to use the word “vetting,” and you know that’s a word that’s exactly what the Breitbart crowd wants to hear. It would be far more risky to actually run ads about a lot of this stuff, but not all that risky to threaten to talk about it: sure a few reporters and a bunch of Obama operatives will get worked up, but that will fade quickly if there’s no follow-up, and it’s not as if the electorate is paying attention at that level.
So we’ll see. As I said, perhaps it’s true that this is all a knee-jerk reaction to the hits that Romney is taking. But as long as there’s another possibility rooted in the logic of Romney’s situation, I’ll stick with that until convinced otherwise.