If Barack Obama loses the presidency, blame for the outcome may come down to a fatal mistake in tactics: The Democrats made fun of Mitt Romney. Too much fun, as it turned out.
Uncomfortable with talking about Obama’s own domestic record, the Democrats’ campaign against Romney essentially amounted to portraying him as a nitwit — an ignorant, insincere, and gaffe-prone dolt who had no business being on the national stage, much less becoming president. That message was relentlessly pushed over the summer and early fall by the Obama campaign and it was undeniably effective. By the end of September, literally every single respected national poll showed Romney trailing the president. The National Journal, for instance, gave Obama a margin of 7; Fox News, 5; NPR, 7. Republicans were discouraged; the race seemed over.
How bad was it for Romney? Ever since clinching the GOP nomination with his win in Texas on May 29, he had been subjected to a withering barrage of mocking attacks. Granted, the Republican gave the Obama campaign much fodder, ranging from his “47 percent” comment to his worry about England’s handling of the Olympics to his tale of the dog on the roof. Over time, Romney’s reputation was in such tatters that things verged on the absurd.
For example, on Sept. 21, Ann Romney’s aircraft experienced an electrical fire in flight, the cabin filling with smoke. Shortly afterwards, Romney wondered aloud why airplanes didn’t have windows that could open. The remark went viral, proof of just what a dunce the guy was — opening windows in flight, as almost everyone knows, is a recipe for catastrophic depressurization.
Also in late September, stories started circulating that Romney’s pick for vice president, Representative Paul Ryan, had taken to calling his running mate “the stench.” Ryan, supposedly fearing for his own prospects as a possible candidate in 2016, was avoiding the nominee. “If Stench calls, take a message,” was one devastating quote. As with the airplane story, it was a telling anecdote, showing the degree to which even those closest to Romney knew his candidacy was a disaster.
Both stories were, in fact, untrue. In the case of the airplane quote, Romney did say the words, but they were uttered jokingly, as the original reporter on the story, Ashley Parker of The New York Times, told other reporters. The stench story, meanwhile, had no basis in fact. It was a piece of satire made up by Politico’s Roger Simon.
But to a degree, none of that mattered. The two stories had an element of what Stephen Colbert might call “truthiness” — factually false, but appearing to contain an underlying truth. Thus, a week before the first presidential debate, “Saturday Night Live” was able to run sketch featuring a pretend Obama acknowledging he didn’t deserve reelection but nevertheless telling audiences he had a “secret weapon” — that weapon being the bumbling Mitt Romney himself. Romney had become Palinized.
Then came the three debates. Regrettably for Obama (whose performance in the first debate suggests that he too may have believed his own propaganda), the Romney who showed up on stage was anything but an idiot. He looked quite presidential, in fact. Moreover, he was so dramatically different from the man portrayed in all of the Obama commercials that doubts arose in some minds about the veracity of everything else Obama was saying. Momentum shifted. A race that was a slam-dunk for the president became a nail-biter.
It’s certainly conceivable that the Democrats’ tactics could have worked. Indeed, the ridicule of Romney continues — the Big Bird ad, the debate line about cavalry and bayonets, the “Romnesia” gibe — suggesting that Democrats still think derision can succeed. But there is also great danger in tearing down one’s opponent. In 1980, Democrats had tried to paint Ronald Reagan as a bellicose and unhinged right-winger, an image that collapsed with the challenger’s avuncular demeanor during his debates with Jimmy Carter. Reagan won that race. Romney, as improbable as it may have seemed a month ago, may win his. The lesson: If you’re going to call your opponent a fool, make sure that really is the case.
Tom Keane writes weekly for the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.