It was astounding, in the first debate, that President Obama chose not to hit Mitt Romney with the damning evidence in that fat-cat “47 percent” fundraising video. No other weapon in the Obama arsenal is remotely as effective in demonstrating Romney’s habitation of a rarefied world far removed from the reality of the average Joe. For Obama, that video is the point of the spear. But because Romney got a pass, he’s now taking the opportunity to wriggle his way free.
Well, that’s what happens in politics when you fail to go for the jugular; the guy with the intact vein lives to enjoy another day. And what better enjoyment, for a Republican candidate, than to repair to the friendly confines of Fox News and spin to his heart’s content – and not get challenged about it?
So it went last night, when Romney sat with one of his favorite doormats, Sean Hannity, and offered a brand new take on that video. Whereas two weeks ago he was standing by his privately spoken words – he insulted nearly half the American people, calling them government-addicted slackers who refused to take responsibilty for their lives – and saying only that he had might have spoken inelegantly, now all of a sudden he’s going into mea culpa mode. Romney to Hannity:
“Well, clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right. In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong….When I become president, it will be about helping the 100 percent…For me, this is all about the 100 percent.”
By all accounts, Romney had readied that spin for the debate, in the event that Obama brought up the video. But since Obama did not, Romney took it to Fox News where Hannity naturally failed to ask the obvious follow-ups: Was the candidate merely saying that his May remarks about the 47 percent hadn’t “come out right,” and that it was just a bad choice of words – or was he renouncing the substance of his original remarks? And was he walking back his original remarks only because that video threatens to kill him in the swing states?
But Hannity would never challenge Romney that way. It was up to Obama to challenge Romney that way.
If Romney had tried to float that retroactive spin during the debate, Obama would’ve had the opening to tie him in knots and knock him off stride. A repurposed Reagan line would have done wonders: “There he goes again, changing his position. What should Americans believe, governor? What you said in private, or what you now say in public?”
By the way, we now have an explanation for why Obama willfully whiffed. David Corn, the Washington reporter who broke the video story in mid-September, phoned the Obama camp after the debate. He asked a campaign official why Obama hadn’t talked about the video, and he got this response:
“Not that we won’t talk about it again. We will. But (what’s) most compelling (is) hearing it from Romney himself. We’ve got that on the air at a heavy dollar amount in key states. And it’s sunk in. Ultimately the president’s (debate) goal was to speak past the pundits and directly to the undecided voter tuning in for the first time about the economic choice and his plans to restore economic security.”
That’s weak. Granted, the Obama TV ads have been effective because they feature Romney denouncing Americans in his own words, but a debate (particularly the first) draws by far the largest audience of voters. And what voters look for are the clearest points of contrast. Obama himself has sought to frame this race as a choice between competing ideologies and philosophies. The video is a metaphor for the Romney ideology. Obama’s failure to confront Romney with that video, and to rebut Romney’s rehearsed spin in real time, was worse than a missed opportunity. At a crucial juncture in this campaign, it was a failure of nerve.
Speaking of Romney spin, it will be interesting to see how he inputs today’s news that the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.8 percent, the lowest rate since George W. Bush dumped his economic debacle into Obama’s lap. I envision Mitt saying something like this :
“I’ve said all along that the jobless rate would fall below eight percent. The broader point, as I’ve said all along, is that it’s unacceptable for America to endure a jobless rate that’s consistently higher than 7.7 percent.”
Did Bill Clinton call Obama after the debate, and offer some vintage Bubba advice? We may never know. But I have imagined the moment, satirically so, in my Friday newspaper column.
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