We can capture the dynamic of the ’12 campaign by simply examining Mitt Romney’s latest misfire. I’m referring to his ballyhooing of a 14-year-old video that features Illinois state senator Barack Obama speaking favorably about the concept of “redistribution.” Oh, man. If this is the best that Romney can do, he’s probably doomed.
While trying to blunt the damage incurred by the release of that fat-cat fundraising video – the one where he insults virtually half the electorate – Romney sought to turn the tables and essentially say: Hey, folks, if you think my video is bad, just wait til you hear what Obama said in his video. And so the Romney campaign circulated a YouTube clip that showed Obama riffing in 1998 about the ineffectiveness of anti-poverty programs in Chicago. The key passage (I’ve highlighted the phrases that sent a tingle down Team Romney’s legs):
“What that means then is that as we try to resuscitate this notion that we’re all in this thing together, leave nobody behind, we do have to be innovative in thinking how, what are the delivery systems that are actually effective and meet people where they live, and my suggestion, I guess, would be that the trick – and this is one of the few areas where I think there have to be technical issues that have to be dealt with as opposed to just political issues – how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution, because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody’s got a shot.“
He actually believes in redistribution! Team Romney, in its growing desparation, has latched onto the R-word as if it were an overhanging tree branch that can keep the campaign from being swept away. Romney and his running mate have tried to bang Obama about it, seemingly confident in their belief that swing voters will view the R-word as proof that the president really is a secret Marxist who wants to swipe their savings and give it to Those People.
But the R-word tactic is already fizzling out, for obvious reasons: (1) John McCain tried the same tactic in 2008 after candidate Obama said something to Joe the Plumber about wanting to “spread the wealth around,” and nobody bought it then. (2) It’s hardly a secret that Obama wants the wealthiest citizens to pay more in taxes and thus sacrifice more for the greater good; he said so in his convention speech, and (3) most importantly, we are all redistributists. The income tax system has been built on that concept since it was established via constititional amendment 99 years ago. Safety net programs for the poor are redistributive. Social Security is redistributive. Medicare is redistributive. In fact, Medicare is so popular that the GOP’s pitch for partial privatization is sending more and more baby boomers into the Obama camp.
Heck, Romney’s rich friends support redistribution, too. They just prefer to be the beneficiaries – as happens routinely, thanks to the loan guarantees and tax subsidies and corporate welfare programs that funnel the bucks their way.
So the whole R-word thing is just another straw man argument, a vivid symptom that the Romney campaign is in serious trouble. Consider these numbers, from the latest New York Times-CBS News survey: When likely voters were asked which candidate they most trust to handle their taxes, 48 percent chose Obama and 46 percent chose Romney. I had to read it twice to ensure that my eyes weren’t deceiving me. It’s virtually unprecedented for a Democrat to outpoll a Republican on the tax issue; no wonder Romney is trailing in this race. There’s no way he can pin that ’98 video on Obama if he’s deemed less trustworthy on taxes.
But I’ve saved the best for last.
Let’s return to Obama’s R-word passage – and the remarks he made immediately thereafter: “…I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody’s got a shot. How do we pool resources at the same time as we decentralize delivery systems in ways that both foster competition, can work in the marketplace, and can foster innovation at the local level and can be tailored to particular communities.”
Gee, what a surprise. Romney somehow failed to include that bold-faced sentence. He conveniently omitted the fact that Obama had indeed talked about redistribution – but only in the context of creating decentralized programs “that both foster competition, can work in the marketplace, and can foster innovation at the local level” – you know, traditional Republican concepts.
Why did Romney mislead the public about what Obama actually said? Because his campaign didn’t see fit to check the facts and determine whether the YouTube video provided the full context. It did not. But Romney’s people used it anyway.
There are a host of reasons why Romney is increasingly losing traction in this race – a conservative group’s poll even has Romney trailing in North Carolina – but surely one reason is simply this: People just don’t like the guy. In the latest nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll, he is viewed favorably by 45 percent of adults, and viewed unfavorably by 50 percent. How significant is this? Pew tells us: “No previous presidential candidate has been viewed more unfavorably than favorably at this point in a presidential campaign in Pew Research or Gallup September surveys going back to 1988.”
Here’s a free tip for the Romney team: Ginning up phony issues is no way to boost a candidate’s likeability.
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