Saturday, August 25, 2012

Obama flashes his debate strategy

Early this year, when the media aired a strategic debate as to whether the Obama team should paint Romney as a flip-flopper or as a conservative extremist, I suggested that the two charges are complementary -- he is a flip-flopper who's flipped his last flop:
There is opportunist Romney, who will say anything and adopt any position to get elected, and there is committed Romney, whose current policy positions have been set in concrete by his extremist party. He is not an Etch-A-Sketch, who can shake himself at will, but a Ouija Board, to be played by the GOP base. itself.  He has no core, but he's been cast in a mold that won't be broken until the GOP transforms itself.. That is, until hell freezes over.
That's pretty much the approach that Obama takes in a lengthy interview with the AP:

Q. I wanted to follow up on one other thing on Romney. One of your advisors, David Plouffe, said once that he doesn't think Romney has a core — speaking about what he stands for. Do you agree with that?

Obama: I can't speak to Governor Romney's motivations. What I can say is that he has signed up for positions, extreme positions that are very consistent with positions that a number of House Republicans have taken. And whether he actually believes in those or not, I have no doubt that he would carry forward some of the things that he's talked about.

I don't think that he would back off a $5 trillion tax cut at this point. He's made that the centerpiece of his economic argument. I don't think that if Congress presented him with some of the items that are in the Republican platform at this convention that would, for example, entirely roll back women's control over their reproductive health, that he would stand in the way.

He said that he would eliminate tax credits that are going to wind producers, even though we've doubled the production of wind energy. I suspect that he has to follow through on those commitments.

And so, when I look back on 2008, the promises that I made — I said I'd end the war in Iraq; I did. I said that I'd go after al-Qaida and bin Laden; we did. I said that I'd give middle-class families a tax cut; they're paying on average about $3,600 less than they were when I came into office. I said that I would make sure that every American family has some security when it comes to health insurance; we got it done. I said that I would help young people get more affordable college, and we got that done.

So we haven't gotten everything done that I promised, but a big chunk of what I said I would do in 2008 we have done. And I've got to assume that Governor Romney would do the same thing. And so, regardless of his motivations, the question then becomes is what he's proposing actually going to help hardworking families all across the country. I don't think they will.

If you're a voter and you believe that the biggest problem we have is that the president has put too many regulations in place to keep our air clean and our water clean, if you believe that the way to reduce the deficit is to gut our investments in education and transportation and cut taxes for wealthy individuals — then you should feel confident that Governor Romney is going to follow through on those commitments. I just don't think they'll work.
'I can't speak to his motivations, but he's locked in.' Surrogates, meanwhile, speak to Romney's motivations. That seems pitch-perfect to me.

As does this whole interview. As with Obama's interview with Jeff Goldberg on foreign policy, I sense tremendous strength when Obama speaks at length and come away reassured.  James Fallows take note: Romney's chief debating weakness, according to Obama, is not that he's "vague" on policy, but that his policies and assertions manifestly make no sense or are outright lies that won't stand up to direct challenge:
Obama: My sense is Governor Romney is a very capable debater. I think he did a very good job in his primary scoring points. The challenge he may end up having is the fact that some of the core arguments he's making against me just aren't based on facts.

So probably the most prominent argument that he's been making for why voters should vote for him is this notion that Obama took the work requirement out of welfare, and he'll put it back. The problem is, is that every fact-checker, every reporter who has actually looked at this says this is just made up, that, in fact, the president and his administration has been willing to say to states that want to put more people back to work, get more people off of welfare, they're willing to give them some additional flexibility, but that there has been no attempt to eliminate the work requirement.

And so if that's the central premise or the central argument that you're making and it's based on something that's just not true, it will be, I think, a little bit tougher to defend face-to-face in a debate.
That's not subtle, and it's not a deep dark secret. Romney's lies will not stand up to direct scrutiny or debate challenge.  In the GOP debates, all candidates had a common interest in lying about Obama's record and in proposing fantasy solutions such as massive tax cuts and abolition of federal government departments.  But there is no way to mask, one-on-one, that Romney can't cut marginal rates by 20% and not raise taxes on investment and come out "revenue neutral" without raising taxes on the middle class, or that holding federal spending to 20% of GDP without raising new revenue or cutting defense will lead to enormous cuts in all domestic functions, or that Obamacare is functionally all but identical to Romneycare. Nor will Romney be able to assert or defend lies about Obama such as that he made the recession worse, or threw Israel under the bus, or believes in or seeks to create equality of outcomes for all Americans.

Reading this interview, I have very little doubt who will win the debates.


  1. To reduce doubt even more, review Obama's UK style "question time" at the House Republicans' Baltimore Retreat in March 2010. Transcript and video here. HuffPo headline: Obama goes to GOP lions' den - and mauls the lions.

  2. I suggested that the two charges are complementary -- he is a flip-flopper who's flipped his last flop

    I believe that charge is correct on the merits--but I'm not yet convinced it'll be easy for the Obama team to communicate to the public. To my ears, it sounds dangerously close to an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand argument. It also depends somewhat on a knowledge of the way our political institutions work (even if Romney intended to govern as a moderate he would be faced with a Tea Party-dominated Congress, as well as his own fears of a right-wing primary challenge in 2016).