WASHINGTON — The Obama Democrats who gather in Charlotte this week have a big advantage over Tampa’s Romney Republicans: Last week’s GOP convention gave President Obama a peek at Mitt Romney’s playbook. Combining the lessons of this highly public briefing with what’s already known about the Romney strategy defines the Charlotte Imperative.
Several things are obvious. Romney has been stung by the attacks on his career at Bain Capital and knows he has a serious likability problem. That’s why so much time in Tampa was spent countering these liabilities. Democrats will continue to exploit them.
The Republican nominee also signaled that he intends to couple harsh assaults on Obama with a more in-sorrow-than-in-anger approach aimed at voters who still like the president but are disappointed he didn’t live up to their hopes. The best lines in both Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s speeches spoke to the disenchanted. Obama will have to speak directly to them, too: explaining why the economy isn’t where it should be, arguing that his path forward is still more promising than Romney’s, and linking his second term plans with the hopes of 2008. These goals lie behind Obama’s “Forward” slogan.
Even conservatives have conceded that Romney left a huge opening by doing little to specify what he would do in office. Obama will define the Romney agenda himself, but he’ll also have to offer his own plans as a contrast to Romney’s vagueness. Since Romney accused Obama of “divisiveness,” Obama will have to explain why the division in the country was caused primarily by the GOP. He’ll be helped in this by the behavior of Republicans in Congress — they’ll be star players in Charlotte rhetoric — and by the caustic character of so many Tampa speeches.
Romney has found real traction on one issue: his broadside against Obama for allegedly ending the work requirement in the nation’s welfare program. The fact that the charge is based on a lie — Obama is not dismantling the work requirement — has not stopped Romney from running a series of advertisements that cast Obama as the friend of freeloaders.
Welfare has been a racially tinged issue for over four decades, and Romney’s ads are clearly aimed at wooing white working-class voters who may not like Obama much but mistrust Romney as an out-of-touch, upscale investor who gives little thought to their interests. What’s maddening for Democrats is that whenever they point out the racially charged nature of Romney’s assault, Republicans piously cast themselves as victims, accusing Democrats of “playing the race card.” The GOP reply is disingenuous but effective.
Defanging the welfare issue is Obama’s highest immediate priority. This task is complicated because voters tend to view Obama as more liberal than he actually is, which means many of them are prepared to believe there may be some truth in Romney’s false claims.
Obama’s lieutenants will wrap the welfare claims into a larger narrative about Republican indifference to facts and veracity, another area in which Tampa’s speeches will help them. And Obama’s best witness will be former President Bill Clinton.
Romney praises Clinton in some of his ads for inaugurating work requirements, so Clinton can call Romney out directly for inaccuracy. Clinton can reach many wavering white working-class voters in a way Obama cannot, so the former president’s speech will be nearly as important as the president’s own.
Two messages dominated in Tampa: that business is responsible for building America and thus deserves more tax and regulatory concessions; and that Republicans are the party of opportunity while Democrats are the party of dependency on government.
The idea that Obama is anti-business is absurd (look at the Dow Jones averages) and needs to be refuted. But more important is challenging both Tampa premises. America was built not only by business people but also by those who “labor in the oil and gas fields, mines and mills,” and by the “hands that work in restaurants and hotels, in hospitals, banks, and grocery stores.” The words of Rick Santorum, Romney’s former rival, were among the few spoken in Tampa that acknowledged the priority of labor. It’s a theme Democrats should embrace.
And Obama will have to return unapologetically to the theme of his inartfully cast but philosophically sound “You didn’t build that” speech. American government — through student loans, the GI Bill, the interstate highway system, and so many other measures — has always been primarily about opportunity, investment and enterprise, not dependency. For Obama, winning this argument is a precondition to winning the election.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.