Before Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum addressed an Americans for Prosperity forum on Saturday, the DNC put together a web ad that weaves together oil industry subsidies, the Koch brothers efforts to defeat Obama, and Mitt Romney’s connection to them. Also, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina sent out a mass email criticizing Romney for speaking at the AFP event (AFP being just one of many conservative organizations receiving money from the Kochs) and describing the Kochs as oil profiteers who are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat the president.
What’s interesting here is not so much the focus on a powerful and incredibly wealthy donor, but the Obama campaign’s apparent strategy of trying to depict the GOP as the party responsible for perverting government for the protection of special interests. What’s slightly strange about this effort is that Obama has been president since January, 2009.
Because two of Obama’s signature policy initiatives — the stimulus and health care reform — are not particularly popular, he is forced to run for reelection in light of the fact that the American public has broadly lost faith in the government’s ability to do anything right, but not make it seem like he is to blame for it. And how to do that? Relentessly depict the Republicans, and the Republican nominee, as a puppet for the very forces who are truly responsible for cynicism about government.
Stanley Greenberg, the long-time Democratic pollster and strategist, has been writing about this very issue since the Democrats took back the House and Senate in 2006. His argument, fleshed out most recently in the New York Times in July, is that “voters feel ever more estranged from government” and don’t even trust those politicians with whom they agree to implement their plans in a way that will benefit average Americans. This is a problem for Democrats who are championing government investment and social spending in light of what Greenberg calls “a full-blown crisis of legitimacy.” What to do?
One solution to this crisis of legitimacy Greenberg has suggested is taking up campaign finance reform and going after lobbyists. This way, politicians can align themselves with voters who, as Greenberg put it in a memo for Democracy Corps, “want their leaders to stand for reform and accountability, centered on breaking the nexus of money and power in Washington. ”
Although aggressively championing actual campaign finance proposals will likely be awkward in light of Obama’s embrace of pro-Obama Super PACs, it is much easier to go after the GOP’s wealthiest supporters. The fact that the GOP primary is as much a fight between Super PAC donors as it is candidates makes this line of attack even more plausible.
If it’s going to be hard to convince the public your accomplishments are significant and that your policy proposals are good ones, your second best option might be to convince voters that the other guys aren’t even trying to do something good in the first place.