PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s campaign has expertly controlled the election’s narrative over the course of this week: probing Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and his reticence to release his pre-2010 tax returns. It’s sublime politics, a tactful “devil you know” distraction from the country’s economic woes.
The Democratic offensive has gone from the tenuous to the grossly absurd, shaping a picture of Romney as not just unpatriotic, but downright corrupt. Fact checkers at the Washington Post have been kept busy, repeatedly slapping down the Obama campaign’s accusations. However, the political rewards to be reaped from character assassination are often too lucrative to ignore – especially when the accused repeats the falsehood. Governor Scott Walker, who recently won a hotly contested recall election in Wisconsin, advised Romney to “never fight a battle on your heels.”
But in the face of the Obama onslaught comes an opportunity. At Bain, Romney overhauled or provided seed funding to American brands that have boomed and enjoy global name recognition. That’s a fact. And one that, unless embraced, will be further obfuscated to the Republican’s detriment. Romney doesn’t just have to defend his own wealth and success, but the very concept of economic aspiration itself. Obama’s utterance that if “you’ve been successful, you didn't get there on your own” certainly helps. It’s indicative of a President with no experience in the private sector or understanding of job creation. The same can be said of his attacks on Bain Capital: ignorance. That’s not just a mere accusation – the unemployment numbers say so.
And yet the Obama’s decision to double down on his attacks on Romney may only go so far. Like Romney in the Republican primaries, the President’s personal approval among the electorate may suffer if his only recourse over the next few months is to bombard his opponent with smears. Already concerns are mounting that Obama’s ongoing offensive and “tax the rich” populism may be off-putting to suburban voters. What’s more, the Obama campaign can only exploit its financial advantage for so long as it’s expending resources raised during the primary process. Obama has vastly outraised – and outspent – his opponent, saturating the airwaves; but equilibrium in the media wars will be restored in late August when Romney can spend resources designated for the election. It’s how he does it that matters.
Initial polling suggests that the latest attacks on Romney’s record have had little or no impact thus far. But it’s still early – the race remains deadlocked. The attacks will not abate, but pressure may also start to mount on Romney from conservatives to make the case about his successful business career. Who knows – with the President’s campaign playing fast and loose with the truth, the electorate might finally appreciate some candour.
Ewan Watt is a Washington DC-based consultant. You can follow him on Twitter on @ewancwatt