There’s a lot of talk these days about the way Mitt Romney is once again shifting his political principles. He’s Etch-a-Sketched himself from the hard-right-winger in the primaries into a reassuring centrist in the debate last week. But for me, Mitt Romney has always had one firm guiding principle: Mitt Romney. I don’t mean this just to be another Romney put-down. It really is what has guided his life in business and in government. More importantly, it provides a devastating way for President Obama to make sense for the American people of what Romney really stands for. If the president tells the story below, he will clinch his reelection.
At Bain Capital, making as much money as possible for Mitt Romney was clearly his guiding principle. Romney didn’t care whether the companies Bain bought hired workers or fired workers; it only mattered whether they made more money for Bain and Romney. And he got very rich.
When he entered politics, running for U.S. senator and then governor of Massachusetts, Romney said whatever he had to say in order to win votes in that liberal state, even on issues with honest and profound moral divides, like abortion. Since he had to be pro-choice to be elected governor, he was pro-choice. The same was true for supporting gun control. And when he negotiated a bipartisan health care plan, he bragged that it would be a model for the nation.
So when it came to staking out his positions as a candidate for the Republican nomination, the only question Romney had to answer was: What do I need to say to win? The answer: Become anti-choice, pro-gun control, and virulently anti-immigrant and reject my signature legislative accomplishment. If that’s what it takes to win the nomination, so be it. And with enthusiasm, because the one thing Mitt Romney firmly believes in is Mitt Romney.
We saw that kind of all-out enthusiasm last week in Denver, when Romney once more ardently professed to what Americans most want to hear. And because all great salesmen deeply believe in their product, he came across as a sincere, committed leader, selling the one product he’s always been selling: Mitt Romney.
But within that strength is his Achilles’ heel, if President Obama strikes at it. Obama must tell Americans that the only thing Mitt believes in is Mitt. It is a simple story that will get Americans quickly nodding their heads in agreement. In the debate next week, the president will point out that Romney is lying and changing his positions, and Romney will deny that and stand up tall for what he says he now believes. At some point, Obama needs to just cut through it all.
The president should start with: “Mitt, I do know what you believe in. It’s Mitt Romney.” He should then tell the story I laid out above in a few short sentences and clinch the argument with:
“And now you’re doing it again! All of a sudden you’re Etch-a-Sketching the Republican primary, going back on everything you campaigned for around the country over the last year. Because you know you can’t get elected president as the extreme conservative — your words, Mitt — you’ve been bragging about. The problem, Mitt, is that you can’t Etch-a-Sketch your way as president. To serve as president, you have got to stand for more than Mitt Romney. You have to have core values, not just what’s best for you. You need to have a firm, moral foundation for what’s best for America.”
From a rhetorical point of view, this argument has two powerful elements. The first is what pollsters call “an obvious truth.” People will immediately get it, as it will make sense for them of the conflicting stories they are hearing about Romney. The mystery will be solved.
The second rhetorical punch is that there is nothing Romney can say in response that doesn’t reinforce the president’s message.
The fundamental reason that Romney’s debate performance worked so well last week is that in this period of economic struggle — “Middle-income families are being crushed” in Romney’s words — many swing voters are open to voting for another candidate for president if they think he can be trusted and has their values. That’s why the Obama campaign has focused almost entirely on undermining Romney. Obama’s closing argument needs to be this: Mitt Romney doesn’t believe in your family or America. The only thing Mitt Romney believes in is Mitt Romney.
Cross-posted from Next New Deal.