Deteriorating economic conditions and a week where the Obama campaign’s Bain attacks were questioned even by fellow Democrats have Obama supporters wondering how they should try to portray Romney.
The right way to attack Romney (if we must concede that the campaign has to descend into attacks) is to call into question his campaign’s central message. Romney is running on the idea that he is the one with the competence to improve the economy because of his business record and his record as Governor of Massachusetts. Obama strategists will have ample material here. Romney’s time at Bain produced many claims of companies Bain took over where jobs were lost or the companies were left saddled with untenable debt.
Of course, Romney and his team would argue that on net, Bain’s involvement with companies produced jobs and that the financial sector is vital to the nation’s health. But Obama need not convince voters that Romney was heartless or that he always caused jobs to be lost. Instead he just needs these voters to wonder if Romney’s claims that his time as a businessman gave him particular insight in how to create jobs given that they are continually reading stories of how Bain destroyed jobs. Now, the last time this line of attack was deployed, Democrats such as Cory Booker and Bill Clinton objected. If the Obama campaign uses such attacks directly, it could risk another episode where important surrogates are off-message and it could lower Obama’s personal favorability ratings by making him look like another calculating politician.
The right way to bring up Bain is to do nothing at all and instead leave the job to outside Democratic groups. I am sure someone will come up with the idea to consolidate all the anti-Bain attacks in the Republican primary into an effective ad, which would have the helpful side effect of blunting attacks that criticisms of Bain are Democratic class warfare. When Obama is asked what he thinks of the attacks, he should say that he will not be revisiting the Bain issue and looks forward to offering a positive vision to the American people. When pressed about whether he agrees with the attacks, he might even digress and say that he wishes that outside groups could not raise unlimited sums of money to use on attacks, which is one reason he opposed the Citizens United ruling which most Americans do as well (but which many Republican politicians support).
As for Romney’s time as Governor, it has already been pointed out that Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 states in job creation. In fact, Obama strategists might gleefully point out that Obama has a comfortable lead in the state where voters are most familiar with Romney’s economic performance. They could say something like “in the one place where Romney had a chance to implement his economic vision, voters are overwhelmingly choosing Obama.” Now, this fact obviously owes to Massachusetts’ Democratic tilt, but that will escape those who are not avid political junkies. Romney might argue that the above job creation statistic owes to factors beyond his control such as national economic conditions, or opposition in the state legislature to his policies by Democrats. But this brings an obvious retort: “If Romney couldn’t turn the economy around in his state, how will he do so for the whole nation?”
Romney may in fact have clever responses for the charges. But the point would be that he is on defense regarding his central claim. Is it fair to hold Romney alone responsible for job creation in Massachusetts? Probably not. Many factors lay beyond a Governor’s control in a four year time span. These include the composition of the work force, business climate in other states, and the amount the opposition party will work with him or her. BUT, it is not more unfair than laying blame for all of the economy’s problems at Obama’s feet, or criticizing him for not fixing all of them in the past three years.
If Obama can nullify Romney’s advantage on the economy, he can turn the election into a referendum on who has the best ideas going forward and on other factors such as personal likeability. He has a much better chance of prevailing on those grounds than he does if it becomes purely a referendum on the economy.