Jonathan Bernstein, on Mitt Romney’s birther joke:

It does...remind us of the real dangers of the conservative closed information feedback loop. If you spend all your time in a world in which birther and teleprompter jokes are really funny, Solyndra was a major national scandal, and Barack Obama and the Democrats are encouraging gun crimes so that they’ll trick the nation into strict gun control, it can be hard to know what’s appropriate to say in mixed company and how it’s going to be taken. After all, at every event a Republican politician is at, it’s stuff like that that’s getting the big reactions. It’s not surprising that they lose a sense of how it plays with the rest of the world.

Putting aside whatever motivated Romney’s birther joke, the broader point Bernstein makes here highlights another apect of all this: Romney and Republicans often don’t seem to have decided which Obama they’re running against.

Early on in the campaign, Romney advisers were telling reporters that they were going to paint Obama as a nice family man who was just in over his head; public dissatisfaction with the economy and Obama’s stewardship of it ensured that this would be enough to win. But as the race intensitfied, Romney also needed to prove to the right wing base that he has what it really takes to take it to Obama. Remember, the right’s mythology is that John McCain lost to Obama in part because he wasn’t willing to be aggressive enough in exposing Obama’s true beliefs, instincts, and inclinations. Romney began targeting a new and more sinister version of the President, the one who favors “equal outcomes” and wants everyone to enjoy the “same or similar rewards” regardless of how hard they work. This Obama — the one whose plan to restore Clinton era rates upon the richest two out of every 100 taxpayers is indistinguishable from socialism — could have sprung from the fevered imagination of Glenn Beck.

In recent weeks, even as one outside group is running ads criticizing the benign version of Obama more in sorrow than in anger, Romney has been targeting the second, more sinister Obama more regularly. Obama believes only government is responsible for your success, and disdains your hard work and individual initiative. Obama secretly wants government to take over every aspect of American life and society. Obama gutted welfare reform’s work requirement, in order to send welfare checks to those who don’t work, even as you continue to struggle. He gutted old folks’ Medicare to extend health insurance to other people — still more evidence of his inclination to take what’s rightfully yours and redistribute it downward. As Bernstein notes, attacking this Obama is what gets the big crowd reactions.

I don’t know whether it’s fair to say Romney’s birther joke is of a piece with any larger strategy. But the broader point is that the increasing attacks on the second version of Obama suggest Romney has decided he needs to leave behind his initial theory of the race — that he can win on the economy alone. The version of Obama that Romney is now running against revs up the GOP base, and perhaps base voters (on both sides) are taking on increasing importance as the pool of undecided voters dwindles. But the campaigns are also fighting hard over that dwindling pool, and over moderates and independents. And what remains to be seen is whether attacks on the bad Obama will square with those voters’ perceptions of him. If they don’t, those attacks could backfire.


UPDATE: Post edited slightly for clarity.