Monday, October 08, 2012

All Shook Up

On March 21, when Mitt Romney’s communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, told us via CNN, just how his candidate would campaign in October, many observers laughed. A lot of people, especially Democrats, saw that quip as a gaffe.

“Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Fehrnstrom said. “Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-A- Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

Much to the delight of the press, in the course of the first presidential debate Romney shook it up.

In doing so, Romney pivoted toward the center, much as Fehrnstrom told us he would. To his credit, Romney’s salesmanship of his new talking points was on the money. Post-debate polls suggest some undecided voters may have bought what he was selling. Maybe that's true, for the time being. What his salesmanship surely did was stoke Republicans' enthusiasm.

On the other hand, Barack Obama’s presentation was lackluster, at best. Whether he was flabbergasted by his opponent’s sudden changes in his positions, or he and his strategists had decided in advance not to attack Romney -- either way -- the president’s performance didn’t serve his cause.

The Romney from the Republican debates and the campaign trail was not much in evidence in Denver. October's Romney didn’t try to bet Obama $10,000. This time Romney didn't say: “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.” He didn’t say: “I like being able to fire people.” He didn’t say: “Corporations are people, my friend … of course they are.” And, he certainly didn’t say: “I was a severely conservative Republican governor.”

But a condescending Romney stood behind a podium, faced Obama and did say: “Look, I have five boys, I'm used to people saying something that isn't always true and keep on saying it hoping ultimately I will believe it.”

After Romney’s debate-winning, Etch-A-Sketching denial of his longstanding tax plan and much of what he had been repeating on the campaign trail for months, we know more about how his five sons came by their penchant for telling lies.

Romney’s debate strategy was a gamble aimed at undecided voters. It had two prongs: Romney figured the ultra conservatives now have nowhere else to go, so they won‘t abandon him for abruptly changing a few positions at this late date. Secondly, he figured most undecided voters haven’t been paying much attention, so they wouldn’t notice that he was flip-flopping, once again.

Moreover, the day after the debate, Romney guessed that undecideds wouldn’t care so much if Democrats and left-leaning pundits call him out on his latest flip-flopping episode, because to the undecideds it would sound like more boring spin doctor noise ... like, so what? 

Romney couldn’t have counted on Obama’s passiveness on stage in Denver. That must have been a welcomed bonus. But it was one debate. If Obama repeats that same bemused reaction to what Romney says on stage on October 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., then the president’s bid for reelection will be in a lot more trouble than it is today.

Romney has now demonstrated he is a good salesman. For the time being, he has halted what had the appearance of a death spiral. We already knew Obama is a good writer, which has been largely responsible for his wordsmith reputation. Before October runs its course, we'll have a better idea which candidate is actually the better debater.

On Election Day, November 6, we'll find out how much that matters to all the eligible voters who vote.
-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

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