RNC Strategy: Don't Get Personal With Obama


The Yahoo News report of Tuesday’s Republican National Committee conference call has produced much dismay throughout the conservative blogosphere:

Republicans on a private Republican National Committee conference call with allies warned Tuesday that party surrogates should refrain from personal attacks against President Barack Obama, because such a strategy is too hazardous for the GOP.

“We’re hesitant to jump on board with heavy attacks” personally against President Obama, Nicholas Thompson, the vice president of polling firm the Tarrance Group, said on the call. “There’s a lot of people who feel sorry for him.”

Recent polling data indicates that while the president suffers from significantly low job approval ratings, voters still give “high approval” to Obama personally, Thompson said.

Voters “don’t think he’s an evil man who’s out to change the United States” for the worse–even though many of the same survey respondents agree that his policies have harmed the country, Thompson said. The upshot, Thompson stressed, is that Republicans should “exercise some caution” when talking about the president personally.

(Emphases mine.)  In case you’re wondering how Yahoo News managed an exclusive report on such a candid, and potentially explosive, strategy conference, somebody at the RNC screwed up and invited them into the call by mistake.  Wonderful.

So, what strategy do the RNC solons advise for taking on the worst President in modern history?  Why, they’re going to slap him silly over his flip-floppery:

Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for George W. Bush, encouraged Republicans to turn around Democratic attacks lobbed at the GOP presidential candidates (Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, for starters) for “flip-flopping.”

“I don’t like playing defense,” Fleischer said. He suggested the listeners to Tuesday’s call label the president as a flip-flopper on the following issues: opposing tax increases for those making under $250,000, opposing the Bush tax cuts, opposing raising the debt limit, and opposing a health care mandate.

“When it comes to flip flopping, Barack Obama is the king of flip flopping,” Fleischer said. “You can offer that to anybody,” he suggested.

There are all sorts of problems with this analysis, but let me start by giving the RNC its due: personal attacks can be overplayed.  The Left went way over the top in attacking George W. Bush in 2004, and it was one of many factors that led to Bush’s re-election.  There really are a lot of voters who have a reservoir of respect for the office of the President, and/or a visceral distaste for “dirty politics” and “mud-slinging.”  People with strong feelings about a public figure must always wrestle with the tendency to project their distaste, or appreciation, across the broader population, mistaking intensity for radiance.  The diehard Obama cultists will be dealing with this phenomenon from the opposite direction, as their rapturous devotion is sure to inspire a good deal of eye-rolling.

Also, the wise Republican candidate will be conscious of the media landscape.  They can shape the narrative by choosing their words carefully to manipulate the media, but the narrative will not be changed for them.  Intemperate remarks that would be buried or downplayed if they came from a Democrat will be forged into nine inch nails against the GOP presidential contender.  Double standards will be so blatant that the media might just engage in a few moments of quiet introspection about them… in 2013.   I really don’t want to spend the spring of 2013 reading a defeated Republican candidate’s perfectly justified complaints about how unfair this all is.

Having said that, the idea that Obama could be pinned to the mat with flip-flops is simply ridiculous… and not only if Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich is the nominee.    A certain degree of “flexibility” is priced into most voters’ expectations of politicians.  Almost all of them leave a trail of broken campaign promises. 

Furthermore, many of Obama’s biggest betrayals have come at the expense of the Left.  Some liberals might be dejected enough about this to stay home… but any Republican candidate conservative enough to rebuild post-Obama America is going to draw so much fiery outrage from the hard Left that the voter-suppression effects of rattling off the President’s broken promises to disillusioned liberals will be minimal.  Liberals grouse about individual policy betrayals as much as conservatives do, but as long as the government gets bigger, they have something to celebrate, and Barack Obama has made the government a lot bigger.

Another problem with the RNC’s strategic advice is that Obama has worked very hard to make politics personal.  His Osawatomie speech was just the latest example of this.  Part of his re-election strategy involves making the case that his disastrous policies are a moral imperative to correct income inequality, punish evil rich people who have taken advantage of the working class, ensure that the poorest Americans have access to health care, et cetera.  The overall theme of his presidency is that a failing nation must atone for its sins upon its deathbed, and Obama is both its hospice nurse and confessor. 

The president was very explicit in Osawatomie that freedom and capitalism have failed, and only collective effort, under the wise stewardship of maximum leaders such as himself, has any hope of restoring American greatness.  You can’t really criticize such a re-election narrative without “getting personal,” because it’s all about him personally.  Accepting his 2012 campaign theme involves membership in a cult of personality, so even the most genteel disagreement with his signature “achievements,” such as ObamaCare or “green energy,” will be interpreted as personal criticisms of the Great Man.  The very act of running against The First Black President will be portrayed as fundamentally immoral.

Also, even the most Beltway-insulated Republican elitist might have noticed that Obama and his media proxies are not at all shy about making things personal against them.  This is going to be the nastiest and most divisive re-election effort in history.  Obama and his auxiliaries, notably the Occupy Wall Street movement, have been working hard to divide America into warring camps.  Republicans with serious strategies for fiscal responsibility will be mercilessly depicted as hired stooges for the Evil Rich.  Racial politics will be aggressively deployed through surrogates, even as Obama continues the pretense of being a post-racial healer. 

This not just a question of saying “they’re going to be mean, so we’ll be mean right back to them,” which would be a terrible mistake.  Instead, the Republican candidate should realize that a lot of independent voters are going to look at the passion gap and conclude that the polite, bloodless fellow muttering about “flip-flopping” is not as important or urgent a figure as the guy who says his opponent is a heartless tool of sinister class enemies.  Didn’t we get enough of this in 2008, when John McCain spent much of his time praising Barack Obama as a fine, upstanding fellow who would make a terrific President, while Obama surrogates painted McCain as a doddering old fool whose campaign was an irrelevant speed bump on the Lightworker’s road to Presidential history?

Finally, the Republicans should realize that energizing their base is important.  The merest glance at the polls shows that the GOP base is deeply divided about the current crop of candidates.  Their great concern, reflected in the rise and fall of so many alternatives to Mitt Romney, is that the 2012 candidate will turn into another speed bump.  They want a fighter, not someone whose campaign will give Obama all the credit in the world for good intentions while offering moderate-to-severe critiques of his “mistakes.”

The moralistic component of the Obama 2012 campaign will be married with a practical theme he’s been polishing for years: that he tried his hardest to overcome an impossible situation dumped in his lap by the hellish George Bush, and nobody could have done better than he did.  Obama’s odd discourses on how lazy and stupid Americans have become is part of this strategy – how could he have molded a better nation from such imperfect clay?  He’ll tell voters that America was made weak by the shadowy fat-cat forces he is sworn to defeat, and in his second term he’ll make us better with his brilliant plans for infrastructure and education spending, so we’re finally worthy of his vision. 

Liberalism has always relied upon boundless credit for its good intentions to survive the horrific ruin of its failures.  Taking it easy on Obama personally, while leveling dispassionate criticism of specific policies, will play into this narrative: he’s a great guy who tried his very best, and it’s really not his fault that things haven’t turned out as well as he hoped. 

How do you argue against that storyline, and insist that it is his fault, without getting just a little bit personal?  How can you defeat the most arrogant man to occupy the Oval Office in a generation without taking him down a peg?  How can you win the most bitter full-contact political battle in our lifetimes, with the highest stakes ever placed upon the table, while treating it as a croquet match?