Political Animal


October 25, 2012 1:21 PM Ideology Versus Authenticity

By Ed Kilgore

In what reads like a first draft of a post-election “Why Obama Lost” piece, the New York TimesMatt Bai suggests that the president took bad advice from Bill Clinton and chose the “conservative ideologue” attack line on Mitt Romney rather than the “flip-flopping opportunist” approach, and because ol’ Moderate Mitt really isn’t “Rush Limbaugh with better suits and frosty hair,” it hasn’t worked.

Bai doesn’t offer any substantiation for his claim that “voters have shown time and time again in recent elections…that they value authenticity above almost anything else.” Maybe he’s just playing off the endless Beltway appetite for Obama-versus-Clinton story lines, but I fear the more basic motive is the even greater appetite for wishing away the extremism of the contemporary Republican Party and/or any ideologically edgy campaigning. Totally aside from Bai, the air is full this week of verbiage suggesting that by making the contest ideological, Obama has “lost the center” to Romney, which is another way of saying Mitt is a plausible resident of that most desirable neighborhood.

The trouble all along with the pure 100% flip-flop criticism of Romney was that it conceded that he might very well be a different kind of president than he indicated during the primary campaign—and indeed, since 2007—and essentially offered a “triangulation” theory that he wasn’t himself in a position to present (now he is sorta kinda doing it, without any real substantive policy changes, at a time when conservatives are too wrapped up in the drama of the stretch-drive to make any objections).

Contra Bai, I’d argue that there’s no inherent contradiction between labelling Romney an insincere flip-flopper who’d do anything to get elected president, and explaining that his latest “flips” placed him ineradicably in the grasp of an extremist party and its many powerful interest groups. As for Obama’s own role in this repositioning, it was his failure in the first debate to expose Mitt’s agenda and put the lie to Moderate Mitt that made it a successful event for the Republicans.

We’re twelve days out now, and the sad truth is that only a minority of the electorate—mostly liberal and conservative activists—has a clear sense of the vast gulf in ideology between the two parties and their presidential candidates. Raising doubts about Romney’s “authenticity” is easy enough, and I don’t understand Bai’s assumption that the Obama campaign and its supporters have abandoned those attacks. But the bottom line in terms of motivating “base” voters and appealing to undecideds alike is coming down to a characterization of the choice they face. Explaining the Romney-Ryan agenda is not only central to the task of dramatizing that choice—it’s also far better than mere assertion as a way of showing that Moderate Mitt is a phony.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • max on October 25, 2012 1:32 PM:

    In what reads like a first draft of a post-election “Why Obama Lost” piece

    Wishful thinking will help Romney win!

    I fear the more basic motive is the even greater appetite for wishing away the extremism of the contemporary Republican Party and/or any ideologically edgy campaigning.

    Well, actually I don't think Bai would be wishing it away, so much as not raising it as an issue because it's embarrassing.

    I'd just read the article as Bai pitching in a hand for the MittMo bubble, and attacking Obama (with a hand puppet) for the exact same reasons Obama has been attacked since the git go.

    Roughly speaking, R leaners define 'moderation' as the middle of the R party. Any variance from that is 'extremism'.

    ['I wouldn't give Bai too much credit... or any credit really, since as far as I can tell he's just a hack.']

  • Napoleon on October 25, 2012 1:45 PM:

    Bai is terrible. Some useful advise is to simply not read anything with his by-line.

  • TCinLA on October 25, 2012 1:50 PM:

    Matt Bai is a fucking moron.

  • mercurino on October 25, 2012 1:53 PM:

    Bush/Rove had no problem painting John Kerry as both a flip-flopper and a far left liberal. As I recall, there was a line at the RNC about Ted Kennedy being the second most liberal senator from Massachusetts. The idea that you need one narrative to "define" you opponent is typical unexamined beltway conventional wisdom.

    I'd also add that Clinton won twice despite being cast by the Right as both an unprincipled liar and an unrepentant super-liberal. I'd venture to say most voters don't really care about these characterizations nearly as much as campaign reporters do.

  • PVB1 on October 25, 2012 1:53 PM:

    Ed is exactly right. For the past 30 years, the Republican party has required that its nominee become an "empty vessel" to be filled the with ideas and policies of the advisers and funders who run the party. Ronald Reagan was, after all, an actor; he read the scripts he was given brilliantly. George W. Bush was happy to be the empty vessel for the 2000s, and he did not care to note that what he said on Tuesday of one week could be completely contradicted by the script he was given on Wednesday. John McCain, the so-called "Maverick," knew he has to accept the supremely unqualified Sara Palin to be his running mate, because that was the judgment of his advisors. And Mitt Romney learned quickly that he had to leave his Governor's legacy completely behind and become the right-winger he became in the primary; when told he needed to etch-a-sketch and become a moderate in the first debate, that was no problem, and he was happy to accommodate. Empty vessels are meant to be filled, emptied, and refilled as necessary. (George H.W. Bush was a bit of an exception to the "empty vessel" model, but he was a throw-back to when there were people like Rockefeller Republicans in the world.)

    SO, Ed is right that there is nothing inconsistent with combining the flip-flopper attack and the right-wing attack. The Republican party is controlled completely -- lock, stock, and bayonetted barrel -- by the right wing, but if their strategists say "flip," the empty-vessel candidate flips, and if they say "flop," he flops. All in the service of winning elections so that the right wing can rule.

  • mb on October 25, 2012 2:00 PM:

    Seems to me that the whole "Romnesia" meme is a direct hit at Mitt's (lack of) authenticity. I think Matt Bai is watching another campaign that's only happening in his head.

  • Bokonon on October 25, 2012 2:03 PM:

    Because to Bai, positioning and appearances and characterizations are all that matters. Substance is for rubes. And facts are for weirdos who just don't understand the grand power game.

    Too bad those facts keep punching this country in the face, over and over and over, after the positioning and appearances fade.

    Seriously ... did orders go down from some smoke-filled room that everyone in the mainstream media has to talk about Romney's new tack to the center? Or is this just Romney playing the press for chumps yet again, knowing exactly what pressures they face to step on the facts, and just report the visuals?

  • Anonymous on October 25, 2012 2:10 PM:

    Matt Bai suggests that the president took bad advice from Bill Clinton and chose the “conservative ideologue” attack line on Mitt Romney rather than the “flip-flopping opportunist” approach.

    How about the "well connected cheater" approach. Here's a nominee who had state politicians call him the victor of the first state primary even though he lost. How about a debater that used a very well practiced move to whip out a "handkerchief" on a podium only to be seen seconds later putting something back into his pocket. He's even seen carefully stacking papers at the end and unlike the other debater goes and collects his "notes" before exiting the stage. How about a candidate in the birthplace of democracy who has investment ties to a group of Bain buddies that own controlling shares of e-voting machines in Ohio.

    Mitt Romney is the quintessential rich guy rigging the game. Go with that.

  • Davis X. Machina on October 25, 2012 2:14 PM:

    Matt Bai, because Bill Kristol is always wrong., and both sides, sometimes, really do do it.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 25, 2012 2:23 PM:

    "Romney was that it conceded that he might very well be a different kind of president than he indicated during the primary campaign..."

    These isn't a weakness in the Mitt-Flop criticism. It's like this: If a fellow is trying to court me while simultaneously courting another little lady, I wouldn't think very highly of him. I especially wouldn't think highly of him if he tells me that he only talks to her because her pappy knows some people who know some people who can get him a really cushy job, a job which he'll use the earnings to fly me all over the world.

    I would think him a smarmy, opportunistic, sleazy little git. I would also assume that he sells the same story to every pair of panties that prances across his path.

    This, in essence, is how I view Mitt Romney. So it doesn't matter if he's claiming he'll be a moderate when/if he gets into the White House. It matters that he's currently demonstrating that he has no principles whatsoever and will do/say anything to get a vote or two. And it's rather unbecoming...

  • ANM on October 25, 2012 2:44 PM:

    "Bai doesn’t offer any substantiation...."

    I'm no fan of Twitter but it seems to me you could have just used that sentence instead of the five paragraphs. Heck, substitute a "ce" for that "tiation" and it's even shorter.

  • Right/Left = Impulse/Thoughtfulness on October 25, 2012 2:45 PM:

    Bai's theory is grounded in the successful use of the "Flip-Flop" attack.

    Romney's dishonest flip-flops could have easily been used as a central part of a narrative showing that Romney, the Republican Party, and even the entire right-wing are fundamentally dishonest and unprincipled.

    Obama chose not to use that successful tactic out of courtesy as Obama is inherently courteous to his opponents, even to a fault.

    That's not to deny Obama doesn't throw the very rare sharp elbow, but those are as often thrown at his allies, while he's gone to extremes to show courtesy to his opponents.

    And that is unfortunately a narrative of the Democratic Party that Obama has furthered: Too kind to their opponents while dismissive of their allies.

  • Joe M. on October 25, 2012 2:49 PM:

    A "pace" and a "contra" on the same day! Playing to us academics, are you? :-)

  • Mitch on October 25, 2012 3:20 PM:

    @Right/Left = Impulse/Thoughtfulness

    Alas, but you are absolutely correct. I like Obama as I have never liked a politician, but he is FAR too kind to those who are enemies—not just HIS enemies, but the enemies of progress.

    I am of the opinion that the major reason the Dems fail at PR is that they have mostly abandoned champion Progressive ideals and ideas. I'm also of the opinion that such behavior is due to the Dems buying into the GOP spin that we live in a "center-right" nation. The truth is that people love liberal ideas, but they hate 'liberals' if that makes sense. They have been convinced by decades of GOP propoganda, and Dems tend to pander to it, even if only by word not deed, but often by both.

  • Steve LaBonne on October 25, 2012 4:11 PM:

    Matt Bai is a fucking moron.

    And that is the only thing to take away from any Matt Bai story whatsoever. Which saves the trouble of reading them.

  • Kathryn on October 25, 2012 4:15 PM:

    Sgt. Gym Bunny, ma'am.....lol