Obama's flip-flop strategy against Romney carries risks

President Obama is expected to use the second presidential debate on Tuesday to drive home the argument that his campaign is making with increasing force: that Mitt Romney is a political opportunist and flip-flopper who will say whatever it takes to win.

But the critique carries risks for Team Obama. The prime danger is that voters might not hold ideological malleability against Romney — especially if they like the direction in which he is bending.

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Some Democrats fear that the campaign’s focus is becoming hazy at a worryingly late stage. Others are not so fretful about the campaign itself, but argue that portraying Romney as outside of the mainstream is Obama’s strongest card.

“The problem with ‘flip-flopper’ is it plays into some people’s beliefs that he’s a closet moderate,” said Steve Elmendorf, who served as deputy campaign manager for the presidential candidacy of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. “They have to make the case that he’s not.”

A similar rationale was pushed some time ago by no less a political expert than President Clinton. According to a recent account in The New Yorker, Clinton warned key Obama aides including campaign manager Jim Messina about the possible shortcomings of the “opportunist” argument.

“They tried to do this to me, the flip-flopper thing,” the magazine quoted Clinton as telling the Obama team. “It just doesn’t work.”

Clinton might have rethought that, however. In the aftermath of the first presidential debate in Denver — during which Romney sought to tack to the center on a number of issues — the 42nd president mocked the return of “Moderate Mitt.”

Clinton told a crowd in Las Vegas, Nev., that while watching the debate, “I thought, ‘Wow, here’s old moderate Mitt. Where ya been, boy? I missed ya all these last two years.’”

The Obama campaign takes issue with the idea that its assault is intended to paint Romney merely as a flip-flopper. Instead, aides say they are trying to point out what they regard as the mendacity of the Republican candidate’s recent shifts. 

Romney is a hard-right conservative but is seeking to conceal that fact because it is electorally expedient to do so, they assert.

“We know Mitt Romney will say anything to win, even if it’s not true,” Messina stated in a memo released Monday morning. “The real Mitt Romney has been running on his ‘severely conservative’ positions for years, but now – just weeks before Election Day – he’s trying to hide them because they’ll hurt the middle class and his chances of winning.”

The language echoed a similar memo from deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter on the day of the vice-presidential debate last week. Cutter accused Romney of “cynically and dishonestly hiding his real positions because he knows it will jeopardize a win on Election Day.”

The Obama campaign had tried to paint Romney as more straightforwardly opportunistic during his quest for the GOP’s presidential nomination. 

"If you are willing to change positions on fundamental issues of principle, how can we know what you will do as president?" David Axelrod told reporters on a conference call last fall.

But, around the time that Romney secured victory in the intra-party battle, Team Obama began to suggest that it was, in fact, crystal-clear what the former Massachusetts governor would do if elected.

“Whether it’s tax policy, whether it’s his approach to abortion, gay rights, immigration, he’s the most conservative nominee that they’ve had going back to Goldwater,” senior White House advisor David Plouffe told The New York Times in April.

Now, the older argument has made a reappearance. Yet some Republicans insist it will be no more effective in a general election than it was during the GOP primary.

“When you try and put a label on someone, it can only work if it’s true,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said. “They’re trying to paint him as extreme but the only way that works is if Romney acts extreme. But he’s not.”

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, noted that there was a basic problem with attacks that concentrate on someone’s past record: voters might simply think that the candidate’s present stance is much more important.

“The strength of Romney’s strategy is that voters have short attention spans,” he said. “He’s betting that lots of voters are just tuning in. What they hear now is what they know about this election cycle.”

Jillson also argued, however, that attacking Romney for bending in the wind and for being a hard-right conservative were not mutually exclusive strategies. Several Democrats sounded a similar note.  “This election comes down to who best answers the question of who is more trustworthy to lead the country for the next four years,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House. “For the president, there is no need to pick between the flip-flopping line or the extremist line — he can do both, as they each drive the trust issue.”

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is also a columnist for The Hill, agreed that the argument touched upon the issue of trustworthiness. 

But he added that the most efficacious line of attack was “not so generalized. It’s more: when he says he’s a moderate don’t believe him, because he has been campaigning as a hard-right guy for years.”

While the Democrats ponder and strategize, however, Republicans look on with a new confidence in Romney’s chances. 

Bonjean was dismissive of Team Obama’s line of attack.

“They’re just trying to see what sticks,” he said.