It’s instructive to compare the two major ad campaigns targeting Barack Obama that were launched today. The first ad, from the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, features a range of Obama supporters explaining, more in sorrow than in anger, that they have reluctantly concluded Obama has failed.
The second ad, from the Romney campaign, strikes a harsher tone, claiming Obama raided Medicare to take money from “you” — the elderly viewer — to give it to those who benefit from Obamacare.
There’s no reason the Romney campaign and its outside allies shouldn’t strike different tones and messages in attacking Obama. But this particular contrast goes to the very heart of the type of campaign Romney has decided — belatedly — to run.
The Americans for Prosperity ad is a tactic designed to deal with Obama’s personal popularity. How do you paint Obama as a failure when swing voters (unlike leading Republican officials and commentators) don’t want Obama to fail? The message in this ad is: “We didn’t want Obama be a failure; we shared his high hopes for his presidency; we believed in the expectations he set, but …”
As Jamelle Bouie notes today, the notion that a Koch-founded group is running with such a message is comically at odds with the reality of GOP obstructionism. “Conservatives will try to mournfully attack Obama, as if they wanted him to succeed,” Bouie notes. “They’re lying.”
That’s true, but it’s also interesting to contrast this with the tack the Romney campaign has now taken.
The original Romney theory of the race was similar to the one animating the AFP ad. We were told for months that Romney could win by making this race nothing more than a referendum on the economy and on Obama’s stewardship of it, which was such a disaster that all Romney had to do was paint him in as a nice guy in over his head and he’d win.
But the Romney campaign has veered sharply away from this approach. Today’s ad is only the latest example of the new tack, which is all about stoking an old-school politics of resentment by painting Obama as someone who harbors disdain towards the hard work of ordinary Americans and redistributionist designs on their hard-won wealth. This has lately been everywhere: The “didn’t build that” distortions; the ads featuring hard working Americans alongside claims Obama wants to send “welfare checks” to people who don’t work; the enlisting of Newt Gingrich to amplify the welfare assault; and, now, the new ad suggesting Obama wants to raid old folks’ health insurance and channel it into a “massive new government program that’s not for you.”
Romney defenders will argue that Obama, too, has made class-based appeals with his call for higher taxes on the rich and his brutal attacks on Romney’s Bain years, tax returns, and policy priorities favoring the wealthy. But in a way, this is precisely the point: Romney has been forced to adopt a new strategy to counter this — one directing middle class resentment downward. It’s no longer, “Obama tried hard on our behalf, but alas, he didn’t quite measure up.” Now it’s, “Obama didn’t ever really want you to succeed.” The Obama strategy was never supposed to start working. People were never supposed to actually evaluate Romney on such unfavorable terms. The bad economy was supposed to trump all. The theory of the race on display in the AFP ad — one that was widely echoed by GOP operatives months ago — would carry the day. But plainly, with the recovery moving forward, however slowly, and Obama maintaining a small but persistent lead, the Romney camp has decided on a new theory — he can’t win on the economy alone.