Why Obama Didn’t Go After Mitt

A lot of progressives are very upset today that in last night’s first presidential debate the President did not mention Romney “Boca Moment,” or tie his criticisms of companies outsourcing jobs to Mitt’s history at Bain Capital. It’s highly appropriate that the Johnny Appleseed of the “Boca Moment,” MoJo’s David Corn, gets the clearest answer from Team Obama on that question:

The Obama campaign does have an explanation. When I asked a top campaign official why Obama had made no mention of Romney’s 47 percent remark, he said,

“Not that we won’t talk about it again. We will. But [what’s] most compelling [is] hearing it from Romney himself. We’ve got that on the air at a heavy dollar amount in key states. And it’s sunk in. Ultimately the President’s goal last night was to speak past the pundits and directly to the undecided voter tuning in for the first time about the economic choice and his plans to restore economic security.”

It’s clear, one Democratic strategist said, that Obama’s inner circle concluded it was best not to turn the debate into a slugfest and hit Romney personally. That might come across as not presidential. It could distract from his aim of persuading those few remaining undecideds that they should see this election as a choice between two starkly different visions for the future and select his. Besides, there are weeks of ads to come, and if the 47-percent theme continues to resonate, the campaign certainly can keep producing ads that use the video as ammo.

If you read between the lines, this adds up to a very low-risk debate strategy that Romney successfully exploited. And if you add in that Obama may have been caught off balance by Mitt’s audacious fighting-centrist-technocrat self-presentation–just afire with a desire to replace Obama’s vicious partisanship with sweet reasonableness and bipartisanship–some of the hesitancy and meandering by the president aren’t that surprising.

It does not, however, explain why Team Obama has been reluctant to draw more explicit comparisons between Romney and George W. Bush, which has long been important to the entire re-election strategy. And that’s not just a matter of raising questions about Romney’s tax and budget plans, or his foreign policy radicalism: it provides a constant reminder that Bush, like Romney, got himself elected as a self-proclaimed centrist “problem-solver” with a heart full of compassion and a history (vastly exaggerated) of working with Democrats. The minute he was in office, all that flew out the window as W. monomanically pursued a deregulation agenda and the largest high-end tax cut he could manage, before exploiting the post-9/11 environment to pursue his “war of choice.”

Obama doesn’t have to get personally nasty with Mitt Romney to draw these comparisons; he just has to observe every time Mitt tries the reasonable-centrist gambit that “you know, we’ve heard this before, from the man Republicans don’t like to talk about any more, George W. Bush.” It’s this pattern of GOP mendacity that makes the private admission of ideological savagery provided by the “Boca Moment”–not to mention by Romney’s running-mate much more publicly–really hit you in the gut.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.