By Alexander Bolton - 06/15/12 10:00 AM EDT
Senate Democrats say criticizing Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper is an effective message for the 2012 campaign and President Obama should not discard it as a line of attack.
In a move to appeal to independents, the Obama campaign in April shifted its emphasis away from attacks portraying Romney as a centrist flip-flopper without core principles.
But Democratic lawmakers like the flip-flopper charge. After all, Romney is more known as the Etch a Sketch candidate than a Tea Party ideologue.
“There are a number of messages out there. That message did resonate and did work and I expect he’ll go back to that message; it’s a very effective message,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said the flip-flopper label “does affect his credibility on significant issues that he’s been on both sides of issues,” in reference to Romney.
Cardin expects Obama will return to it as the campaign grinds toward Election Day because “people want to know there is going to be strong leadership in the White House.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has embraced the tactic of criticizing Romney as a waffling candidate.
Reid chastised Romney for not taking a position on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would address income disparity between men and women.
“He should show some leadership and tell his fellow Republicans that opposing fair pay for all Americans is shameful. But as usual, no one knows today where he stands on this issue. Tomorrow, he may be standing someplace else,” Reid said at a recent press conference.
Reid had earlier jabbed Romney for supporting an extension of the Violence Against Women Act and federally subsidized student loans.
“The Etch a Sketch is coming sooner than I thought. He’s for the education bill; now he’s for [the] Violence Against Women [Act]. Great,” Reid told reporters.
Attacking Romney as a flip-flopper has worked for fellow Republicans.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defeated Romney in the 2008 Republican presidential primary after successfully portraying him as a vacillator without solid conservative principles.
And in this year’s GOP primary, Republicans opposed to Romney rose as conservatives worried about whether he had the core conservative principles needed for the nomination.
The attacks are helped by Romney’s past shifts in position.
Retired Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who switched parties himself by leaving the GOP for Democrats in an ill-fated 2009 attempt to save his seat, quipped earlier this year, “Mitt Romney has changed positions more often than a pornographic movie queen”.
Romney most famously changed his position on abortion, which he has acknowledged. Running for governor in 2002, Romney pledged to “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose” but is now pro-life.
Romney also shifted on climate change. He repeatedly said in the past that human activity contributed to climate change but then asserted at an event in Pittsburgh in October that he did not know the causes of climate change.
While running for Senate in 1994, Romney distanced himself from the Reagan administration and its policies. Running for the Republican presidential nomination 13 years later, Romney declared, “Ronald Reagan was right”.
Romney has argued that changing positions can be a good thing.
“In the private sector, if you don’t recognize if you’re wrong and you keep sticking to a decision that you had before you had all the data that you get later in your experience, why, they call you stubborn. With time, you’d be likely to lose your job, and so you learn as you moved along,” Romney told a New Hampshire audience in December.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) predicted Obama would return to highlighting these inconsistencies during the final weeks of the campaign.
“I think it’s a question of timing — I think he wants to get closer to the election and probably wants to do that on television: ‘Here’s what he said then, here’s what he says now,’ ” she said.
Feinstein said it’s an effective argument because it goes to the question of a candidate’s core values.
“I’m abashedly pro-choice. I don’t know how you can say at one time you were and another time you weren’t. There are certain basics that you don’t change,” she said.
She said it is understandable for an officeholder or candidate to change a position on a more technical question, such as whether to extend the George W. Bush-era tax rates for families making under $1 million or only for those earning less than $250,000.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist, however, said now is not the time to beat the war drums over flip-flopping.
“I think the most important thing to do is to disqualify Romney as economic fix-it man,” she said. “The most important thing to do is show his real economic record and show whose side he’s on economically.
“Flip-flopping is more of character attack and that will matter at the very end,” she said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, said the flip-flopper charge is a good one to use against Romney but he thinks Obama’s strongest hand is to highlight his policy differences with Romney on how to help the middle class.
“To win the election, draw the distinction between them and us — that we are for average folks and they don’t seem to be on issue after issue: jobs, the economy, et cetera,” said Schumer.
“The fact that Mitt Romney hasn’t stuck with a position is a good argument too — there’s not one. But the best one is the one I [just] told you,” said Schumer. “The fact that he’s been all over the lot on so many issues will make a difference to voters.”
Tad Devine, who served as a senior adviser to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 2004 presidential bid, said he agrees with Schumer.
“It’s a good argument against Romney because it’s true. It undercuts his credibility and it’s an easy case to prove,” he said of the flip-flopper charge. “There are stronger arguments available.
“If the discussion and focus of the campaign can be on economic issues that affect middle-class families, that’s the strongest possible terrain for the president."