Mitt Romney’s campaign has been referred to as a restoration of George W. Bush’s policies and attitudes—you can find an example of this argument here. But what’s interesting is that that seems to include campaign strategy, which to this point has been heavily influenced by Karl Rove, specifically when it comes to attacking your opponents in their places of strength. As in 2000, where the intelligent, thoughtful Al Gore was attacked for being a smarty-pants braggart, or in 2004, where John Kerry was swiftboated, presumably because his record of military service was deemed as threatening to the draft-dodging president. Rove masterminded both of these operations, and their underlying philosophy of attacking at a point of strength gained a hold on the imaginations of political writers and campaign workers throughout the nation. I, however, have never been entirely sold on the merits of this approach.

For one thing, while landing a blow against your opponent’s greatest strengths could be a devastating development, it’s definitionally a very difficult thing to do. After all, that’s where they’re strongest! It bears the mark of most counterintuitive theories–it’s “smart” but usually impossible and entirely impractical. I don’t really think Rove pulled it off either time he tried. Yeah, Gore lost*, but not really, and in spite of Gore’s weaknesses as a national candidate (I know, I like him too and wish he’d won, but this is a guy who couldn’t convince Democrats to back him over Mike Dukakis in 1988). Rove’s “attack at strength” strategy was largely misguided, to the extent of having Bush stumping all over California before the election while Gore was locking down redder states like Iowa. John Kerry, OTOH, actually overperformed relative to the fundamentals in 2004, and came agonizingly close to winning Ohio (and the election). And Rove was revealed to be a one-trick pony in 2006, where the Administration flailed to find any sort of message to stave off midterm losses. Rove isn’t a genius, he’s mostly just been lucky. Had it not been for the Supreme Court—or if a few thousand New Hampshire voters decided not to risk it with Nader and vote for Gore instead—he would have become something of a joke after 2000. This has been said before.

For a moment, it looked like Rove’s strategy was on its way out. John McCain’s 2008 campaign was based mostly on experience, an area where McCain was stronger than Barack Obama, and most of his attacks on Obama were on his lack of readiness to take command. Which is pretty classic so far as these things go. But Mitt Romney is a different animal, and his style has been a throwback to Rovianism. He blasted both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum for being insufficiently conservative, which is almost laughable since Romney was far more liberal than either of them only about six years ago. Santorum in particular had been Mr. Social Conservative for ages. I’m not sure it really destroyed either candidate, as they were both ridden with enormous flaws going in, but Romney never really managed to get the votes of those “very conservative” voters he so desperately courted with these tactics. But apparently they thought it worked perfectly, since now they’re going to that well already on Obama. TPM and Steve Benen are all over their attempt to turn the War On Women onto Obama, in order to hit Obama where he’s (currently) strongest. The gist of it is that, because of Obama’s terrible economic policies, he’s the one waging a war on women.

It’s a very weak basis for a Rovian attack. There really has been a systematic assault on the social and economic power of women. It’s been undertaken by members of Romney’s party. Romney has, at times, led the charge. Romney could easily have distanced himself from these measures, or he could do so now–his hold on the nomination hasn’t been in danger for some time–but since he’s Mitt Romney, this just will not happen. Regardless, for Obama to be waging the real War On Women, you have to argue that he’s systematically targeting a crucial demographic for harm. Why? I don’t know. It’s ridiculous. A bad economy is a bad economy for everyone, unless you’re a Wall Street banker. So this is, once again, another example of how Mitt Romney Can’t Connect. (Also, I had no idea that Pat Buchanan’s sister worked for Romney. Good to know. Between her and The Donald, that’s some circle of friends there.)

There are, of course, plenty of ways that someone could theoretically attack Obama on women’s issues. Obama used the abortion rights of DC residents as a bargaining chip during one of last year’s budget standoffs, for example. He nixed expanding Plan B access later that year and gave an unbelievably insulting rationale for doing it, in a pretty blatant example of triangulation/fear of right-wing yelling. He has, though, been quite good on other things, like protecting funding for Planned Parenthood, the contraception decision this year and his quite deft involvement in the subsequent Sandra Fluke/Rush Limbaugh episode. Overall it’s still a mixed bag, and his middling poll numbers among women before Flukegate were perhaps a reflection of this. However, since Mitt Romney has pledged to end Planned Parenthood, was among the most strident of the Bishops’ bootlickers on contraception, and even attacked Rick Santorum for endorsing a pro-choice person a decade ago, he’s rightly been judged the far worse option on women’s issues, and as the leader of a party that decided to wage this war he is being held accountable for it. Romney would be better off to own it and try to fix the damage. His instinct is to just try to attack Obama’s relative strength rather than to listen and try to build up his own support. It certainly appears as though he botched the maneuver, though:

Romney has cited a misleading statistic, and his aides couldn’t defend it. Romney has said current policies are keeping women from getting more jobs, and given three separate chances to say something coherent, his aides couldn’t explain what would change if the former governor is elected president. Were they not expecting these kinds of questions? 

Say what you like about Karl Rove, but I don’t recall those Swift Boat guys being lost for words in those ads.

* Nothing more to say, just that phrase always needs to be asterisked.


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