Romney’s Etch A Sketch Campaign Begins

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Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/2012 AFP

Two constituencies that President Obama is holding onto about as strongly now as he did four years ago are voters under 30 and Latinos. In what is probably not a coincidence, these two constituencies are the targets for the first two major Mitt Romney Etch A Sketch pivots of the general election. After having repeatedly denounced any need for the federal government to subsidize tuition costs during the primary, Romney has now endorsed Obama’s call for extending lower rates for federally-subsidized loans. Romney says he supports the measures “in part because of the extraordinarily poor conditions in the job market.” Apparently, he has been informed of the poor job market since wrapping up the nomination, when he was still advising graduates concerned about debt to acquire a high-paying job.

On immigration, Romney is making the turn a little more slowly, as you’d expect, given the sensitivities involved in holding together his base. Romney has deputized Marco Rubio to craft “his” own version of the Dream Act, a somewhat more restrictive version of the reform that Republicans in Congress killed and Romney opposed in the primary, when he positioned himself on the party’s right on immigration. Romney is “studying” Rubio’s bill.

Can all this really work? It is certainly remarkable how little ridicule or scrutiny Romney has attracted in his rather brazen reversals. In legal theory there exists something called a “libel-proof plaintiff,” which is a figure of such low repute that he cannot claim any monetary damages for his reputation being smeared, on the premise that his reputation is tainted beyond repair. This seems to be the point Romney has reached on the question of consistency. The entire political world regards him as a pure creature of convenience. His supporters have simply calculated that Romney has boxed himself in to the point where he could not afford to betray them.

This position carries a great deal of costs, which Romney has borne through several election contests. Yet it does seem to have benefits, which Romney is currently enjoying. When your reputation for principled constituency has reached this low a point, you have nothing to lose. You can reverse yourself on pretty much anything as long as your allies are willing to accept it.

On the other hand, there are real limits to what you can accomplish by molding yourself to the preferred issue profile of whatever electorate you happen to be courting at the moment. Romney’s old statements and positions are still out there. Democrats can run ads depicting Romney scolding college students for wanting lower tuition or praising Arizona’s immigration laws. Romney isn’t going to rebut those attacks by insisting he’s completely abandoned those positions. He can simply emphasize his new positions, and create a kind of he said/she said debate, where he runs ads touting his new positions and Democrats run ads highlighting his old ones.

But the problem remains that young voters and Latinos who are leaning Democratic right now are doing so because they have developed an attachment to the party. These attachments dictate how a voter processes information and which candidates they believe. Over the last few election cycles, Democrats have completely given up on the idea of gun control, and have tried to persuade pro-gun voters to trust them. It’s had a limited effect because those voters have grown accustomed over the years to identifying with the Republican Party.

Perhaps this explains why Romney isn't actually trying to get anybody to trust him, but to support his candidacy in purely transactional terms:

I think young voters in this country have to vote for me if they're really thinking of what's in the best interest of the country and what's in their personal best interest.

You may not believe Mitt Romney, you may not like Mitt Romney, but Mitt Romney is offering to match Obama's tuition deal and throw in the promise of a better economy. Romney thinks you should take the deal before he changes his mind.