Rick Perry’s “oops” was the big story of last week’s Republican primary debate in Michigan. The far more significant moment came when front-runner Mitt Romney pronounced himself “a man of steadiness and constancy.” Cue the snickering: After all, Romney is a legendary shape-shifter who has changed his position on abortion, gay rights, climate change, immigration, and gun control.
But the debate offered a glimpse of what the Romney team believes is a credible response to the attacks it knows will saturate the general-election campaign (and have already begun in earnest; see: WhichMitt.com). The counteroffensive goes like this: Take the flip-flopping label that has dogged Romney for years, refute it, and slap it back on Obama. “This race is like a car with its wheels out of alignment: No matter how hard anybody might try otherwise, it’s always going to steer back to the economy and jobs,” says Romney strategist Stuart Stevens. “Because of that, [Obama’s team is] going to launch vicious personal attacks, as they did against Hillary and President Clinton. We won’t hesitate to point out how hollow that is.”
Look at Romney’s unflinching response in the debate when asked about his history of flip-flopping. He backed up his claim to steadfastness by pointing to his leadership of the same company for 25 years, his marriage of 42 years, and his lifelong church membership. “I think it’s outrageous the Obama campaign continues to push this idea when you have, in the Obama administration, the most political presidency we’ve seen in modern history,” Romney continued. “They’re actually deciding when to pull out of Afghanistan based on politics. Let me tell you this: If I am president of the United States, I will be true to my family, to my faith, and to our country—and never apologize for the United States of America.”
Romney’s team lists several examples of Obama’s contradictions. The president promised to fix the economy, and he didn’t. He promised to close Guantanamo Bay, and he didn’t. He promised a White House based on transparency, devoid of the influence of special interests. The unfolding Solyndra scandal, to them, proves that’s not the case. They also see a constantly blurred line between the administration and the reelection campaign. “The contradictions between candidate Obama and President Obama are serious, and I think Governor Romney will be able to make that case,” said Vin Weber, a lobbyist and former congressman who is advising the campaign.
The Obama campaign, of course, points to a slew of promises kept: ending the war in Iraq; ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy; making progress in the war against al-Qaida; expanding health care; standing up to Wall Street. Want to turn the campaign into a flip-flopping competition? Bring it on. “Mitt Romney can spend all the time in the world wasting his breath on that,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. “It isn’t just that Mitt Romney has changed his positions. It’s that he has no core.” (The Romney team is struck by the similarities between such rhetoric and Obama’s 2008 attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton. David Plouffe: “It’s clear that Senator Clinton will continue to say or do anything.” David Axelrod: “She parses and calculates and shifts for political position.”)
A major hurdle for Romney in reversing the flip-flop attack is that while voters are disenchanted with Obama’s job performance—and, more specifically, with his stewardship of the economy—they generally like him as a person. Tarring Obama as a man of contradictions is more difficult at a time when the most recent Politico/George Washington University poll, for example, finds that only 44 percent approve of Obama’s job performance but 74 percent approve of him as a person.
For a renowned flip-flopper like Romney to question his rival’s authenticity is a dubious and untested strategy, and it could remind voters of his biggest liability. “Making an attack out of your greatest weakness is fraught with peril,” said Matthew Dowd, a National Journal columnist and an adviser on President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. In that effort, Dowd helped Bush overcome weak job-approval ratings with a polar-opposite strategy: The Bush camp underscored Democratic rival John Kerry’s record of policy shifts while casting the incumbent as steady and strong. “Even when we don’t agree,” Bush said during his renomination address, “at least you know what I believe and where I stand.”
To Romney’s credit, he has notably matured as a candidate. While the Romney of 2008 tried to please everybody—from the antiabortion activists to the fiscal conservatives—the Romney of 2012 is almost exclusively brandishing his business experience and is willing, on occasion, to piss people off. The biggest example of his newfound fortitude has been his refusal to renounce the health care plan he spearheaded as governor of Massachusetts, even though its mandate for everyone to buy insurance is anathema to conservatives.
One of the most important moments of Romney’s campaign came months before he announced his candidacy. At a gathering in Boston with his advisers, one of them told Romney, “Governor, you can’t win until you’re not afraid to lose.” Translation: Stop waffling, sir. Be a man of steadiness and constancy. “The last time the focus was on getting the nomination,” Weber said. “Now the focus is on unseating an incumbent president.”
The question is: Will voters stop snickering?
This article appears in the November 19, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.