One of these days, perhaps not until after the election, someone will give us an inside glimpse into Mitt Romney’s campaign and document the precise moment when his wizards looked at the numbers and saw something that forced them to change everything. Yesterday afternoon Ezra Klein nicely summarized the pivot Team Mitt has recently executed:
This isn’t where the Romney campaign hoped it would be in August. Recall that Team Romney began with three premises for how to win this election. The first was to make this a referendum, not a choice. The second was to keep it focused on the economy. The third was to bow to Obama’s essential likability by treating him as a decent guy who is simply in over his head.
In recent weeks, the Romney campaign has jettisoned every single one of those premises. In Paul Ryan, Romney found perhaps the only vice presidential candidate whose selection would immediately make the election a choice rather than a referendum. In focusing on Medicare cuts and changes to the welfare program, he’s taken the campaign almost entirely off the economy. And in moving toward ”a more combative footing,” he’s abandoned his effort to try to avoid alienating voters who basically like the president.
Perhaps each and every one of these moves is a genius strategic decision. But the Romney campaign presumably had good reasons for adopting those premises in the first place. That they’re changing strategy so rapidly and noticeably at this late point in the campaign does not suggest they’re particularly confident about where they stand.
What complicates any assessment of this pivot is that it’s exactly where conservative activists have wanted the campaign to go from the very beginning. They always wanted a “choice” election, perhaps even more than Team Obama–some because they’re convinced there’s a “hidden majority” for a hard-core right-wing agenda that can only be conjured up by hard-core right-wing rhetoric, and others because they want an electoral mandate for as radical an agenda as possible. They’ve never really cared that much about the economy, devoted as they are to a program for shrinking government and reversing cultural changes that never changes regardless of economic conditions. And they certainly are not willing to concede Obama’s “likability.”
So the Romney campaign has been pulled in its current direction by a distrustful party “base” as much as it’s been pushed by whatever they’re seeing in the numbers and the focus groups. They’re beginning to run precisely the kind of campaign that the activist base thought John McCain should have run against Obama in 2008, but which McCain personally refused to carry out.
What’s different between the McCain and Romney campaigns is that the latter does not exhibit the sort of morally based friction against questionably ethical tactics that the former occasionally fell prey to, infuriating the Palin Wing of the party that wanted holy war 24-7. When the Romney campaign decides to change direction, it’s capable of doing so instantly, with no time wasted on scruples.
So it’s possible we’ll see future pivots by Team Mitt between now and November 6. But now that “the base” has gotten its first taste of bloody red meat from the Romney campaign, it’s doubtful they’ll be happy with anything less.