When Mitt Romney ducked the chance to rebuke Rush Limbaugh for calling a young law student a “slut” and a “prostitute,” critics said he missed out on a Sister Souljah moment.
But until Romney clinches the Republican nomination, a Souljah moment -- vocally speaking out at the risk of alienating a key party constituency -- is too dangerous a way for the candidate to demonstrate strength and conviction. He’ll be better off booking a trip to Tension City, that place where an angry confrontation can forever alter perceptions of a politician.
Saddled with an image as a malleable opportunist, Romney needs a way to convey power and purpose -- especially to independent and centrist voters who will play a key role in the fall campaign.
Facing similar challenges, then-candidates Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush staged contrived confrontations -- the Souljah moment and the Tension City showdown -- to demonstrate their mettle. Both went on to win the White House.
Romney is winning delegates and proceeding, however haltingly, toward the nomination. But the image of Romney as a craven flip-flopper persists. In this month’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of Republican voters, the leading concern about Romney was that “he waffles on the issues and does not take a position.”
In 10 of the 14 Republican primary or caucus states, one or more of Romney’s GOP rivals has beaten him among independent voters -- at times significantly.
In Virginia on Super Tuesday, Ron Paul clobbered Romney, 64 percent to 36 percent, among the 32 percent of the electorate who described themselves as independents. In Ohio (37 percent to 31 percent) and Tennessee (38 percent to 25 percent) Romney lost the independent vote to Rick Santorum. Newt Gingrich carried independent voters by healthy margins in South Carolina and Georgia.
The problem is not just Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, most of whom will probably embrace Romney if he wins the nomination.
A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that Romney has lost ground to President Obama among independent voters across the country as the caustic GOP campaign drags on. Romney led Obama among independent voters by 10 points in January. By mid-February, according to Pew, Obama was beating Romney, 51-42.
In a Washington Post/ABC survey conducted earlier this month, Romney had a 32 percent favorable rating among independents, and 48 percent unfavorable.
All is not lost. Romney is still viewed, by many moderate or somewhat conservative Republicans and independents, as a skilled and experienced candidate who has the business experience and management skills to fix the troubled economy. It gives him “particular appeal to some of the sorts of swing voters that Republicans are going to need,” noted Karlyn Bowman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
The Mormon Romney beat the Roman Catholic Santorum, for example, by 13 points among Catholic voters in Ohio on Super Tuesday.
Yet Bowman warned Republicans that “the coalition that Obama put together [in 2008] is coming back,” as young people, minorities, women, and independents are returning -- at least for now -- to the president.
Women are particularly important. They outvoted men, 53 to 47 percent, in the 2008 presidential campaign, and gave Obama 56 percent of their votes.
And so Romney’s timid response to Limbaugh’s attacks on law student Sandra Fluke -- the candidate waited two days before telling reporters, “It’s not the language I would have used” -- persuaded some that he missed a golden opportunity.
Democrats were quick to cite the episode as further proof that Romney doesn’t have what it takes to be president. “These are tests. Presidential campaigns are tests. You are tested every single day,” said David Axelrod, the president’s top political adviser. “Mitt Romney has failed those tests.
“If you don’t have the strength to stand up to the most strident voices in your party, how are you going to stand up to [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad?” Axelrod said.
Ron Kaufman, a Romney adviser, bridled at the “hypocrisy” of Democrats like Axelrod, whose ire over Limbaugh’s remarks does not extend to Bill Maher, the comedian who routinely uses crude and profane terms to describe Republican women, and who reportedly pledged a million dollars to a Democratic super PAC supporting Obama.
But some Republicans wondered. “It could have been and should have been” a Sister Souljah moment, said Republican consultant Mike Murphy on Meet the Press. “It was a lost opportunity.”
Sister Souljah arrived on the political stage in June 1992, when candidate Clinton faced circumstances much like those that now confront Romney.
“The parallels are eerie,” said Paul Begala, one of the aides who helped choreograph the Souljah moment. Clinton had tacked left in that spring’s Democratic primaries, pandering to the party’s base and using a barrage of TV ads to taint rival Paul Tsongas as insufficiently liberal. But once he had the nomination in hand, Clinton felt the need to show centrist voters that he was, as his aides tirelessly declared, a “different kind of Democrat.”
Clinton did so in a speech to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in which he criticized (and so immortalized) a hip-hop artist, Sister Souljah, for her inflammatory remarks about race. The new maxim -- a Sister Souljah Moment -- now stands for a calculated repudiation of an extreme individual or interest group aligned with a candidate’s political party, with the aim of demonstrating character and mettle.
“Romney could have used a Sister Souljah moment on Rush Limbaugh,” said Begala. “But Romney was a gutless wonder, and Clinton had cojones.”
But Romney had good reason for dodging the opportunity: His lead in the Republican presidential race remains fragile, and his more conservative foes are still winning states and delegates. Why give them the opportunity to question his devotion to the cause by going after a beloved right-wing icon?
Romney still has a problem with the far right, many of whose adherents lionize Limbaugh. In Ohio on Super Tuesday, Romney carried the “liberal” and the “moderate” and the “somewhat conservative” voters. But he lost the “very conservative” to Santorum, 48 to 30 percent.
Romney still needs to lock down the nomination, and there are states with very conservative electorates ahead -- Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas among them -- who might view a symbolic repudiation of a leading conservative spokesman with disfavor, if not anger.
As one Republican pollster took pains to point out, Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment came in June 1992 -- after he had clinched the Democratic nomination. “That small factoid gets lost in history,” the pollster said.
If Romney feels the need to demonstrate his valor, he and his staff could be better off finding a target who isn’t so beloved by the Republican base.
That was the strategy chosen by then-Vice President George Bush in 1988, in his “Tension City” showdown with CBS anchorman Dan Rather.
Like Romney, Bush was saddled with the image of a “wimp,” as a famous Newsweek cover called him. Like Romney, he was born to wealth and raised in the refined refuges of the rich and privileged. Like Romney, his natural manner was polite deference.
It is a sign of the incongruities of American politics -- and the emasculating effects of the vice presidency -- that this decorated Navy war hero faced such a problem, yet Bush did. He solved it by submitting to a live interview with CBS newsman Dan Rather, a conservative bête noir. In the nationally-televised showdown, Bush aggressively parried the newsman’s questions and challenged Rather’s professionalism.
“The American people have seen Rather push people around for 20 years, and the fact is that George Bush stood up to the guy and refused to be bullied and went toe-to-toe with him,” said Bush’s spokesman the following day.
The “wimp factor” died that night.
Moments like these are risky, and not so easy to manufacture. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., never could escape the knock that he was a trimmer -- the Romney of 2004.
But Romney should not be underestimated. In 20 presidential debates, he has performed coolly and capably and demonstrated -- in his evisceration of Newt Gingrich in Florida -- that he too can thrive in Tension City.
Look for it. It’s by far the better route than a Souljah moment.