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the national interest

How Obama’s Allies Are Defining Romney

Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine story about Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama super-PAC, is the most interesting political story of the week. One takeaway from Draper’s story is that Priorities USA really does have a big role in the campaign. The tepid pace of the recovery suggests that Obama can’t run on a “look what we did” platform. He can only persuade Americans that Mitt Romney won’t make things better.

And here Priorities USA has a central role. Most voters have well-defined opinions about Obama. Romney is the variable here. And undecided voters have almost no opinion about him whatsoever:

While conducting a different focus group — this one with non-college-educated Milwaukee voters on the eve of Wisconsin’s April 3 primary — Burton and Sweeney were surprised to learn that even after Romney had spent months campaigning, many in the group could not recognize his face, much less characterize his positions.

In the same passage, Draper explains that Burton and Sweeney couldn’t effectively sell voters on Romney’s support of the Ryan plan, since cutting Medicare in order to clear budgetary headroom for tax cuts for the rich, while an accurate description of the Ryan plan, struck those voters as so cartoonishly evil that they found the charge implausible. (“[T]he respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.”)

I wouldn’t overread this and assume that the Republicans have found the ultimate wormhole, advocating policies so outlandishly unpopular that opponents can’t persuade voters they’re real. Clearly it is possible to run against the Ryan plan. (Kathy Hochul used that theme to win in a Republican-leaning district last year.) But I think the Priorities research shows that the crucial first step is to introduce and define Romney. The basic theme of Romney as a super-rich guy who sees the world through the lens of his own class seems like a powerful and roughly accurate one. The attacks on Romney’s business career fit with the theme. I’m sure there will be more attacks on Romney’s secretive finances — Obama’s campaign keeps dropping the phrase “Swiss bank account” because, I would wager, focus groups find it a little suspicious.

Once they’ve established that frame for voters to understand Romney, then they have set the stage for a closing attack that focuses on the policy contrast. (Or so I have argued.)

One odd thing is that Romney has done so little to insulate himself against this line of attack. George W. Bush framed his entire campaign persona in 2000 so as to protect himself from charges of looking out for the rich — he called himself a compassionate conservative, he falsely claimed his tax cuts disproportionately benefitted the poor, he surrounded himself with cultural symbols of the middle class. Romney is a very rich man running on a platform of helping other rich people and doing almost nothing to deflect the most obvious political attack. (He is withholding the details of his tax plan to enable him to claim he won’t decrease the tax share of the rich, but that’s almost certainly wrong, and likely nobody is going to believe him.) I’ve defended Romney’s general strategy of complaining about the economy and keeping his alternatives as vague as possible. But the lack of defense against an obvious and seemingly quite potent attack is more than a little curious.

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