Mitt Romney’s campaign spent virtually all of Monday battling the White House, which had a major meltdown over his “Believe in America” ad. The Obama campaign’s reaction and Romney’s response were interesting on multiple levels.
To review, the full quote spoken by candidate Barack Obama in 2008 was: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’ ” The Romney ad used, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”
First, this is the equivalent of a shoplifter having a tantrum after his pocket has been picked. As my colleague Michael Gerson explains, the quote that the Romney team used was itself a misleading quote. (“An accurate, fully fact-checked Obama speech would have read: ‘An unknown strategist, who may or may not be formally associated with the McCain campaign and who gave an unattributed quote to a New York tabloid, actually said, and I quote. . .’”) The hysterical reaction of Obama’s team is yet another in a long list of cynical moves that make “Hope and Change” seem like someone’s else’s slogan.
But more to the point, the ad would only be a convincing attempt to portray this as Obama talking about the Democrats’ problem without the ad’s own label identifying the quote as coming from 2008. The Romney team argues that the ad is not about Obama “confessing” but about a 2008 jab at the GOP now being more applicable to Obama in 2011. It’s all a little confusing, I grant you, but is this worth making a giant to-do?
Another telling aspect: The ad played during a week in which Romney was accusing the president of creating massive debt, mismanaging the economy and putting national security at risk with defense sequestration, and yet all of that wasn’t what got the Obama team’s goat. In the Romney camp’s eyes, this is simply more evidence that the Obama campaign can’t defend or run on its own record; the entire Obama campaign will have to be one big misdirection. As Peter Wehner of Commentary Magazine eloquently puts it, “If Obama thinks being conciliatory and civil are the roads to victory, he’ll be conciliatory and civil. If he believes incendiary rhetoric and ludicrous stereotypes are the pathway to success, he’s just as happy to employ them. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other. Whatever works.” Even howling about an ad that in the annals of presidential politics doesn’t really stand out as all that awful.
That brings us to the next interesting part of this: Why would Romney roll out a massive number of surrogates in a series of swing states to defend him and attack Obama’s record? Because, as one Romney adviser put it to me, fighting Obama is good for Romney. By taking the fight to the president rather than arguing with his opponents, Romney hopes to be seen as tough and capable of enduring the Obama attack machine. (Part of his electability argument against Newt Gingrich is that Gingrich’s liabilities are so great that the Obama attack machine will shred him, and with good reason.) Since the White House attacked him, the Romney camp hopes to sidestep any suggestion that he’s presuming to have the nomination locked up. He’s simply defending himself, you see. That’s the thinking, at any rate.
But the final and most intriguing facet in this is that it is one more alternative strategy to engaging Gingrich. The Romney campaign certainly took on Texas Gov. Rick Perry, so why so shy about going after Gingrich? Well, the Romney team, perhaps excessively, may be betting on Gingrich doing himself in ( the immigration issue was an example of Gingrich’s penchant for self-generated problems).
Moreover, as Gingrich rises in the polls, so do the number of staunch conservatives who shudder at the thought of a Gingrich nomination. In her must-read piece Mona Charen argues:
Newt Gingrich is a bad bet because he will embarrass the Republican Party. He will do so through things he has already said and done and in ways we cannot predict except to be sure — because character will win out — that they will happen.
No sooner had Republicans, with a huge boost from Gingrich, achieved the long-denied prize of control of the House of Representatives than Gingrich embarrassed the party by signing a $4.5 million book deal. Though an effective, even inspired, backbencher in Congress, Gingrich proved an incompetent and sometimes petulant leader. . . .
Gingrich was the only speaker of the House in U.S. history to be removed by his own party. It wasn’t a cabal of liberals who forced him out, but Dick Armey, Bill Paxon, Tom DeLay and John Boehner.
Gingrich is lauded as a “conviction” politician and a man of ideas. But his convictions are flexible, and his ideas are half-baked when they’re not loopy.
Now, even with sage voices like that, either before or after Iowa, Romney may have no choice but to methodically deconstruct Gingrich’s record and character.
The other conservative contenders appear to be melting away, allowing Gingrich to collect more of the not-Romney vote. Once the latest accusation of sexual misconduct by Herman Cain sinks in, Cain is likely to continue shedding support. Perry isn’t making any headway in national or state polls either. They may wind up in mid-single digits in Iowa. When there really isn’t any significant challenger other than Gingrich, the head-to-head fight will be unavoidable. (It will be amusing to see conservative media defend Gingrich on the individual mandate, global warming, illegal immigration, etc.)
The Romney camp, I strongly suspect, for a while longer will be opportunistic in picking fights with Gingrich. If Gingrich provides fodder (as on immigration), the Romney team will pounce. The more material Gingrich generates, the more Romney can rely on the media and Gingrich’s other opponents to do the legwork and make the case against Gingrich. But sooner or later you are going to see an onslaught against Gingrich, one in which Romney will have a money advantage (he’s in Florida today, in part for fundraising) and, as we saw Monday, one with plenty of surrogates to go on offense. Meanwhile, fighting with the White House isn’t a bad way for Romney’s team to spend time until the next debate.