Most of William Kristol’s piece in The National Review is pedantic, political fare. Most of the advice he gives Romney is the typical, talking head advice we’ve heard every pundit give every politician that hopes to unseat an incumbent. Most of it is so pedantic it causes the eyes to glaze over, but the piece separates itself from the usual political fare in the third to last paragraph.
In this paragraph, Kristol lays out a solid piece of advice for any candidate seeking to unseat an incumbent: “Don’t insult the candidate they voted for in the previous election, because that insults that voter.” One wouldn’t normally think that a voter would be insulted by an office challenger telling the voter’s that their previous vote was obviously an incorrect one based upon that candidate’s performance while in office. One would think that a voter would allow for a challenger to say, “And here’s why I’m going to do it better.” For generations, we’ve become accustomed to candidates insulting one another, digging up stats and events that dictate why the previous candidate was a boob. Kristol says that’s the wrong approach, because those voters made a judgment in that previous election, and by insulting that former occupant, you are insulting the judgment those voters made in that election.
“Part of making the case for Romney’s future presidency is winning over some citizens who voted for Obama in 2008. People don’t like being told they are, or were, stupid. If some previous Obama supporters are now disappointed—and they are—Romney should empathize with them, not condescend to them. In 2004 John Kerry unfailingly gave the impression that he thought if you had voted for Bush, or approved of anything he’d done (in office), or found him in certain ways likable or admirable, then you were an idiot. That’s no way to beat an incumbent. His former supporters need to be won over rather than bludgeoned into submission. Reagan provided a strong contrast on the issues to Jimmy Carter in 1980. But his tone wasn’t snide or contemptuous. Romney—and especially his campaign, which has had a taste for the snide and the contemptuous—might profitably study Reagan’s 1980 effort.”
When Kristol speaks of the voters, he is speaking of the swing voters that went President Obama’s way in 2008. He is not speaking of the twenty percent, hard-left Obama voters that voted for him in 2008. They think he’s done a fantastic job. Some of them think he’s the greatest president of all time. Romney will never going to win that faction of the electorate over, and any insult of Obama or his record will be seen as an insult to them. Romney needs to forget about them and concentrate on securing the thirty percent of the far-right and the swing voters. He needs to take the mindset that these swing voters are Obama voters, regardless where they stand on the other parts of the political spectrum. He needs to take the mindset that if he insults Obama, he is insulting those particular voters and the value judgments they made in 2008. If he, and his subordinates, are going to criticize Obama’s record it has to be done in a politically artful manner that is judged to be a positive case (overall) for Romney.
“(Swing voters) know the case against Obama,” Kristol says, “They need to hear the case for Romney.”
Swing voters heard the case against Obama in the 2010 mid-term elections, and they responded by defecting. It’s Romney’s job now to forget all about 2010 and attempt to recreate the magic. How does Romney create the magic? This is the typical political fare that makes the eyes of political junkies glaze over. Go big, don’t sink in the mud with the rats and the snakes, and project your image as one that is presidential. Let the super-PACs, the subordinates, and even the RNC handle the snakes.
Bill Clinton may not have invented the idea of letting his minions attack the other side in 1992, but he did take it to another level with his “war room” idea of letting subordinates sink in the mud and divide and conquer the electorate. Romney needs to create his own war room, if he is going to unseat a one-term incumbent in the manner Clinton did. He needs to have Carville-types, Begala-types, and Stephanopoulos-types take on the personal attacks and character assassinations that will be employed by Obama. Obama may not have invented these tactics—that Romney must find ways of defeating—but he definitely took them to another level.
“Let Obama lower himself by acting as campaigner in chief rather than commander in chief. Let Obama be shrill. Let his campaign be petty.
“Instead of giving rebuttals and prebuttals to Obama’s speeches, Romney can give serious speeches about the Constitution and the Supreme Court, the case for limited government and the threat of bankruptcy and penury, about undoing Obamacare and what will replace it. President Obama has failed to pass a big tax reform, failed to master the federal budget, failed to reform our out-of-control entitlements. The next president, Mitt Romney, can explain that he will step forward to do all of these things.
“(If) he allows the race to degenerate into name-calling and gotcha gimmicks, he could lose. Democrats are better than Republicans at the small and nasty stuff.
“If Romney can speak to Americans’ sense that it’s a big moment, with big challenges, and if he can make this a big election rather than a petty one, then he can win—perhaps big.”*
Doing whatever you can to get your message across without insulting those swing voters who made a value judgment on President Obama in 2008, is the best argument I’ve ever heard against campaigning negatively. It goes against the principle idea that going negative works, it goes against the idea that a challenger must continuously point out the negatives of the incumbent if he wants these facts know, and it goes against the UFC idea many of us have of politics today that if you’re going to attempt the herculean task of unseating a sitting president you have to go for the throat. If it works, and Romney is able to juggle these facts about campaigning in America today, without insulting Obama’s 2008 swing voters, we may all have to drop the prefixes Governor and President-Elect to Mitt Romney’s name to insert another one that the superstitious, jinx-believing part of me refuses to write.