By Christopher Malone, associate professor and chair, Department of Political Science, Pace University, New York City
All along on the Romney side, there was a rationale for his candidacy and a strategy to carry it out. The rationale was that Mitt Romney the businessman could turn around the American economy the way he had done for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 and for flailing businesses throughout his career. The strategy was even more straightforward: the election would be a referendum on the president’s job performance as it related to the economy.
In the Obama camp, the rationale for a second term was that the country was moving in the right direction on the economic front – however slowly – and (much like George W. Bush’s argument in 2004 concerning the two wars we were in) you simply don’t change horses in midstream. The strategy was to make the election a choice between moving forward and going back to more tax cuts for the wealthy with an uncaring businessman who was in all respects simply way too conservative for the American public.
After the two conventions in late summer, it became clear that the Obama rationale and strategy were winning. This was shaping up to be a “choice” election rather than a referendum on the president. Romney’s 47% comment simply facilitated the narrative carefully laid out by Team Obama over the summer. By the time of the first presidential debate, something extraordinary had happened: the Obama campaign had actually turned the race into a referendum on Romney. Despite the 47% gift handed to him, Obama kept to its strategy of hinging the election on policy differences. The Romney campaign needed to do something to change the frame of the campaign.
Most thought the Etch-a-Sketch moment would come for Romney in early summer. In fact, it was his equivalent of an “October surprise.” Cynical or not, Romney’s move to the center in the first debate was a stroke of genius because it completely caught the Obama campaign off guard – if the president’s debate performance is any indication.
Seen in this context, last night’s vice presidential debate was the beginning of the pivot for the Obama campaign. There probably isn’t anyone better than Joe Biden to initiate it. In his 40-year career, Biden’s politics have always resided in the heart rather than the head.
This is why we heard him imploring viewers to go with their “instinct.” This is why he pleaded with voters to use their “common sense.” This is why he looked into the camera and asked seniors whom do they “trust” more on Medicare and Social Security.
While there were certainly policy differences, Biden’s performance signaled that the election had moved to the terrain of the heart instead of the head.
Trust and character now take center stage. Going into the second debate, it will be interesting to see how Obama continues this strategy, and how Romney defends himself against the charges. Using stories of personal charity, Ryan’s defense of Romney was forced at best. Romney will have to do better, but if history is any guide, he tends to become flustered in debates when his character and integrity are questioned. On the other side, President Obama is not very good at the “heart” argument. The law professor in him would rather win the case rationally.
So with two debates and a little more than three weeks to go, the original playbooks have been tossed out. And neither candidate is playing to his strengths.
Malone is associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Pace University in New York City.