Last week Politico reported that, facing falling approval ratings and high unemployment, President Obama’s re-election campaign would go negative on his Republican opponent. Currently that means training their fire on Mitt Romney, the national front runner. “Obama’s re-elect will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by Obama’s advisers in about a dozen interviews, “weird,” write Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin.
The inevitable high-minded hand-wringing about the “moral cost” to the Obama campaign ensued, and by Friday morning Obama adviser David Axelrod was disavowing the story, saying he would fire anyone who calls Romney weird.
Hopefully that’s just spin from Axelrod, because the strategy Politico describes is a good one. The same exact line of attack against John Kerry—that he’s an out-of-touch flip-flopper—worked well for George W. Bush in 2004. That’s how Bush managed to win re-election with only a 48 percent approval rating.
Of course, the attack against Kerry was silly. Anyone who has spent a long enough time in politics will have what at least appear to be shifts in position. George W. Bush could have just as fairly been described as a flip-flopping elite as Kerry, but that was hardly the main reason Bush was a bad president.
So what makes Romney’s flip-flopping different? The fact that it exposes not just changes in specific position but rather Romney’s total lack of identity or purpose in politics.
Most politicians adhere to a broad political orientation, such as liberal Democrat or conservative Republican, and shift positions over time as the nature of what it means to hold that place on the spectrum changes. For example, if you are a liberal on social issues you may have flip-flopped over the last decade from opposing to supporting gay marriage, as the realm of what is politically possible has shifted. But there is an underlying constancy in that you are always pushing for social progress.
Romney, on the other hand, has no such identity. In Massachusetts he ran to the left; now he runs far to the right. There is no overarching purpose—whether it be fighting for social justice or defending traditional family values—to his political career.
It is perfectly normal for candidates to recalibrate their stance on a complicated issue such as a war over time, but Romney changes his position on issues like abortion on which there is no change of facts on the ground, only in the office he seeks. And when he makes a reversal he adopts the most extreme iteration of his new stance. So he says the Affordable Care Act, modeled on his own law in Massachusetts, is not only a step too far for the federal government it is “a government takeover of healthcare.” (Politifact labels that claim “flatly incorrect.”)