Romney's pivots raise the character issue

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While position-shifting is certainly a question of policy, the weathervane strategy really hinges on a more basic question that presidential elections turn on: whom do you trust more to tell you what they will do and keep to their word?


On several occasions, Obama took Romney to task for changing his positions on critical issues. On some, he attacked for not leveling with the public. And still others, Obama insinuated Romney couldn’t arrive at a position at all. On coal: Obama derided Romney for embracing the coal industry after accusing coal plants of killing people while he was Massachusetts governor. On immigration: Romney seemed to embrace a version of the DREAM Act, after promising for months of campaigning that he’d veto it. On tax loopholes: Obama called Romney’s tax plan “sketchy” because it does not disclose which tax loopholes he’ll close. On women in the workforce: Obama ridiculed the Romney campaign for telling the press “we’ll get back to you” on a position on the Lilly Ledbetter bill.   

These lines of attack were persuasive in rendering Mitt Romney a flip-flopper. But two other moments put the exclamation point on the character issue for the president.

The first came in what was supposed to be Obama’s Achilles heel – Libya. As the eight-minute back and forth was winding down, Obama looked squarely at Romney with genuine disdain and called Romney’s accusations about the Administration’s response to the attack “offensive.” Translation: it is beneath the dignity of the office of the president to score political points when American lives are lost. That instigated Romney’s worst blunder of the night – the inaccurate accusation that the president hadn’t called the attack “an act of terror” in the immediate aftermath.

The second came at the 96-minute mark, and the last word of the debate. After Romney explained he cared for “100%” of the American public, Obama finally brought up the notorious 47% comment. Whether planned or not, it was a brilliant move because there was no opportunity for a response from Romney.

Taken together, all of these moments indicate that Obama prosecuted a formidable case against Mitt Romney’s character. It sets the stage for the third and final debate on foreign policy next Monday. If character has indeed become that important down the stretch, it should be good news for the president for several reasons.

First, President Obama has consistently led Governor Romney in polls on trustworthiness and foreign policy. In the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, Obama enjoys an 8-point lead on the question of who is more honest and trustworthy (55%-47%). On international affairs, Obama leads 50%-43%. While these numbers are not insurmountable for Romney, overcoming that deficit with three weeks to go in the election would require a major shift in public opinion, which is unlikely.

Second, foreign policy has up to this moment played a relatively minor role in the campaign and thus it would be hard to sway undecideds. Few doubt that the Libya attack has the ability to fundamentally alter the dynamic on foreign policy.

Third, and most important, Americans know less about foreign policy than domestic policy, and for that reason they tend to trust the sitting Commander-in-Chief more than challengers. Jimmy Carter was the exception in 1980 – but Barack Obama is not Jimmy Carter, and it would be a stretch to say Libya is the equivalent to the Iranian hostage crisis.

Mitt Romney therefore has his work cut out for him: debating a sitting president on his own perceived weakness (foreign policy) at the same time going in with a trust/character deficit while his opponent has shifted to the character issue. Time and again, however, Romney has risen to the occasion – something he will certainly need to do Monday night. 

Malone is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Pace University, New York City.