This past weekend was the craft fair on the Boardwalk in Long Beach, New York, which followed Friday night's annual after the 4th fireworks display. This year amidst the corn dogs and tee shirts I noticed a growing number of nonprofits raising funds for their causes. Everyone from the Boy Scouts and the Waterfront Warriors to the Long Beach Historical Society and local food pantry looked busy selling stuff and talking to folks. It got me thinking about the duality of America's people: the strong, good-hearted, charitable streak deep in our culture, and the parallel sense of resentment that those of us that work hard have to pay taxes to support social welfare programs. While Democrats and Republicans lean strongly in one direction or the other, independent voters tend to see both sides and try to balance the two perspectives. It is clear that these moderates in the center will decide this very close presidential election.
A related duality is one where we both admire the wealthy for their accomplishments, and resent them for their luck and lifestyle. All of these cultural traits are finding their way into the Presidential election campaign, which is following its usual path of silly and symbolic manipulation of images. The president is somehow a commie who wants to tax everyone for everything. Governor Romney is the heartless capitalist who hides his money in offshore accounts and sends jobs overseas. The truth is more complicated than these caricatures, although I think the strength of the radical right in the Republican Party will continue to make it difficult for Romney to move to the political center. In contrast, whatever his personal views, Obama has governed from the political center since he was inaugurated.
Obama, like most of America, favors gay marriage, abortion rights, a strong defense, and an active government role in infrastructure development and economic development. He wants to retain and modestly expand the social safety net. While people seem to oppose something called "Obamacare," they are in favor of all of its elements except paying for it. Romney, like most Americans, is not satisfied with our level of economic growth, but unlike most Americans, blames Obama for its failure. Americans seem to remember George W. Bush, and while they are not happy with Obama's performance on the economy, they don't believe that Romney could do any better. These impressions of the president have had three years to solidify and will be difficult for the Romney campaign to dislodge.
Political analysts correctly point out that the battle for the presidency will be determined by centrist political independents. While they, like most Americans, are mistrustful of government, they do not want to give absolute freedom to corporations and do not want to see poor people begging on the streets and dying by the side of the road. Despite the billion dollars of super PAC funding that will be used by the Republicans to define President Obama, it is difficult to change the image created by three years in the White House. That is why, despite his inability to grow the anemic economy, President Obama is still favored to win re-election.
Governor Romney is not so fortunate. The Democrats learned from the "swift boating" of another wealthy Massachusetts politician, John Kerry, of the importance of defining a challenger early in the game. Romney is being defined on an hourly basis, and it's not a pretty picture. Last week's Gallup poll asked a very interesting question about Romney's wealth, and its answer helps explain what the Obama campaign is up to. The question notes that Romney's net worth is about $200 million and asks if that makes you "more likely or less likely to vote for him, or does it make no difference." About 75 percent of those responding said it would make no difference, and 20 percent said it made them less likely to vote for Romney. Democrats were much more negative about his wealth than Republicans, but 19 percent of the independents said that Romney's wealth would have a negative impact on their vote. The Obama campaign is going after those 19 percent independents.
Reminding voters that Romney is rich with offshore financial holdings carries a double punch for the Obama team. It communicates that Romney is not a "regular guy," an image the sports and pop music fan Obama has managed to achieve. It also paints Romney as a Wall Street mogul, one of those financial wizards who caused this endless recession. The subtext is that Obama may not have brought the economy back, but this guy just might make things worse.
The movement of a small percentage of independent voters toward the president could start a trend that could move the race irreversibly away from Romney. This is why there is such a ferocious effort by the Obama campaign to "Bain Boat" Romney, to undermine one of his main arguments for becoming president. For John Kerry, one of his fundamental points of identity was his image as a Vietnam War hero. The Bush campaign painted him as a rich, windsurfing dude, and the independent swift boating group managed to communicate an image of Kerry as "unfit for command," despite the fact that he was actually a war hero. For Romney, one of his main arguments for being president is that he was a successful private manager who built a cutting edge finance firm, moved on to turn around an Olympic non-profit, and then served as a successful governor. Romney's image is that of a wholesome, all-American success story and a brilliant, effective manager.
The counter story that has been presented, first by Romney's Republican opponents and now by Obama, is that Romney is a rich guy's son, a prep school bully with offshore wealth who participated in the worst forms of predatory capitalism. Maybe he's been a success, but at the expense of "innocent victims." Remember, Obama has already been defined for America by three years of attacks and innuendo, along with celebrity hero worship. After extensive media coverage, we know him already. Romney is the guy now being defined. This moment of definition is probably the critical point in the campaign. Romney will get a bounce from the Republican Convention, but that will be quickly eliminated the next week by the bounce Obama will see from the Democratic Convention. The next month is the period that America's view of Mitt Romney is being formed and hardened. While the attacks against Kerry had no truth in them and the attacks against Romney appear to be based in truth, truth is irrelevant to these types of campaigns. The goal is to define your opponent in vivid, unforgettable, and fiercely negative terms.
The Romney campaign will not simply sit by and let this happen. Phase one was the risky but necessary step of having the candidate refute all the allegations in interviews with every media outlet possible. Phase two will be the counter attack. Obama will again be presented as a nice, but incompetent guy who is in over his head and will never be able to bring back the American economy. Mitt will be presented as America's only alternative. The Obama campaign's strategy is that after being "Bain Boated," independents will stick with the devil they know rather than the one they've just met. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Presidency Turns."
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