The Obama campaign has started to act as if the Republican presidential primary is over and Mitt Romney, who has been racking up endorsements from establishment Republicans and columns from liberals touting his relative moderation, is already their general election opponent.
At 11:40 Wednesday morning, the president’s re-election team blasted an email announcement that David Axelrod — the former presidential adviser who has kept a low profile since he left D.C. last year to become the chief strategist at campaign headquarters in Chicago — would be imminently holding a press conference call to respond to Romney’s “Comments About Middle Class Tax Cuts.”
The urgent call was nominally about Romney’s suggestion at the debate Tuesday evening that the proposed extension of last year’s payroll tax cut, which would mostly help Americans making less than $100,000 a year, was a “band aid.” In reality, it was a chance to explicitly lay out the message that Romney was a career flip-flopper who could not be trusted by middle-class voters of either party.
“We’re having this call because Governor Romney has been so brazen in his switches of position,” Axelrod said. “You have to do more than recite the words middle class to persuade people that you’re advocating for them.”
It was, in fact, jarring to hear “middle class” so much at a Republican primary debate — Axelrod called Romney’s repetition of the term “robotic” — because Republicans typically save such theatrics for the general election forums in the fall, when working-class swing voters are up for grabs.
The former Massachusetts governor’s opposition to an extension of the payroll tax cut enacted by Barack Obama “certainly isn’t consistent with a guy who presents himself these days a champion of the middle class, although consistency has not been the hallmark of his career,” Axelrod jabbed, calling the change of position alternately “stunning” and “appalling.”
He jumped on the most common conservative critique of Romney: that his healthcare plan passed in Massachusetts bears a striking resemblance to the Affordable Care Act signed last year by President Obama.
“On health care, [Romney] continued to assert that his program, which was, in fact, a model for much of what we did in our health program, was simply for the state of Massachusetts and that every state has to develop its own program,” he said. “But in 2007, he told Newsweek that the Massachusetts plan would be a ‘model for the nation.'”
Axelrod would later cite another common conservative gripe with the candidate: He ran twice (unsuccessfully for Senate against Ted Kennedy, and for governor in 2002) as a pro-choice moderate Republican who supported civil unions for same-sex couples.
“One of his problems has been that he hasn’t inspired a whole lot of confidence or enthusiasm among Republicans. I think across the political spectrum, people have the same question: If you are willing to change positions on fundamental issues of principle, how can we know what you would do as president, how can we trust who you would be?”
And so the Obama campaign appears to be engaged in a two-prong strategy: discredit Romney as a career politician who can’t be trusted, while depressing the conservative base with constant reminders of his breaks with party orthodoxy.
The tactic bears a striking resemblance to the George W. Bush re-election campaign’s successful effort in 2004 to define another Massachusetts politician as effete and prone to flip-flopping before he had the chance to describe himself, all while ensuring (via public attacks) that the candidate’s party would rush to coalesce around him.