Ideology Versus Authenticity

In what reads like a first draft of a post-election “Why Obama Lost” piece, the New York TimesMatt Bai suggests that the president took bad advice from Bill Clinton and chose the “conservative ideologue” attack line on Mitt Romney rather than the “flip-flopping opportunist” approach, and because ol’ Moderate Mitt really isn’t “Rush Limbaugh with better suits and frosty hair,” it hasn’t worked.

Bai doesn’t offer any substantiation for his claim that “voters have shown time and time again in recent elections…that they value authenticity above almost anything else.” Maybe he’s just playing off the endless Beltway appetite for Obama-versus-Clinton story lines, but I fear the more basic motive is the even greater appetite for wishing away the extremism of the contemporary Republican Party and/or any ideologically edgy campaigning. Totally aside from Bai, the air is full this week of verbiage suggesting that by making the contest ideological, Obama has “lost the center” to Romney, which is another way of saying Mitt is a plausible resident of that most desirable neighborhood.

The trouble all along with the pure 100% flip-flop criticism of Romney was that it conceded that he might very well be a different kind of president than he indicated during the primary campaign–and indeed, since 2007–and essentially offered a “triangulation” theory that he wasn’t himself in a position to present (now he is sorta kinda doing it, without any real substantive policy changes, at a time when conservatives are too wrapped up in the drama of the stretch-drive to make any objections).

Contra Bai, I’d argue that there’s no inherent contradiction between labelling Romney an insincere flip-flopper who’d do anything to get elected president, and explaining that his latest “flips” placed him ineradicably in the grasp of an extremist party and its many powerful interest groups. As for Obama’s own role in this repositioning, it was his failure in the first debate to expose Mitt’s agenda and put the lie to Moderate Mitt that made it a successful event for the Republicans.

We’re twelve days out now, and the sad truth is that only a minority of the electorate–mostly liberal and conservative activists–has a clear sense of the vast gulf in ideology between the two parties and their presidential candidates. Raising doubts about Romney’s “authenticity” is easy enough, and I don’t understand Bai’s assumption that the Obama campaign and its supporters have abandoned those attacks. But the bottom line in terms of motivating “base” voters and appealing to undecideds alike is coming down to a characterization of the choice they face. Explaining the Romney-Ryan agenda is not only central to the task of dramatizing that choice–it’s also far better than mere assertion as a way of showing that Moderate Mitt is a phony.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.