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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — Here are the two great campaign mysteries at midsummer: Why does Mitt Romney appear to be getting so much traction from ripping a few of President Obama’s words out of context? And why aren’t Romney and other Republicans moving to the political center as the election approaches?

Both mysteries point to an important fact about the 2012 campaign: For conservatives, this is a go-for-broke election. They and a Republican Party now under their control hope to eke out a narrow victory in November on the basis of a quite radical program that includes more tax cuts for the rich, deep reductions in domestic spending, big increases in military spending, and a sharp rollback in government regulation.

In the process, the right hopes to redefine middle-of-the-road policies as “left wing,” thereby altering the balance in the American political debate.

What should alarm both liberals and moderates is that this is the rare election in which such a strategy has a chance of succeeding. Conservatives have their opening not because the country has moved far to the right but courtesy of economic discontent, partisan polarization and the right’s success in defining Obama as standing well to the left of where he actually does.

The Obama campaign is trying to disrupt this narrative on multiple fronts. Why did Obama respond so quickly and forcefully to Romney’s effort to use the president’s “you didn’t build that” quotation as a way of casting him as an enemy of small business? It’s not that the attack was true. In fact, it was blatantly false, given that in the same speech Obama praised “hard work,” “responsibility” and “individual initiative.”

The words did, however, play to a stereotype of Obama as an advocate of big government who mistrusts business. The distortion resonated, said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, because key voter groups that Romney is trying to win suspect the four words reflect “secretly what he [Obama] believes.”