The night of his victories in Maryland, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, Mitt Romney laid out the ground upon which he will stand to fight his fall battle with Barack Obama.
Obama, said Mitt, seeks “a government-centered society.”
But Mitt would restore an “opportunity society” built on the foundations of freedom and private enterprise.
“Romney spoke in upbeat, elevated and optimistic tones that were steeped in themes of patriotism crafted for a general election,” said The New York Times.
That same day, President Obama went before America’s editors to lay out the ground on which he intends to fight.
His overarching themes will be security and fairness — social and economic security for the American people and a reduction in the inequality of a country in which the top 1 percent does extraordinarily well while the middle class treads water:
“Can we succeed as a country where a shrinking number of people do exceedingly well while a growing number struggle to get by? …
“This is … the defining issue of our time. … It’s why I ran in 2008. It’s what my presidency has been about. It’s why I’m running again. … I can’t remember a time when the choice between competing visions of our future has been so unambiguously clear.”
With that, the president turned to the budget of Rep. Paul Ryan, which Romney had called “marvelous.”
“This congressional Republican budget is … a Trojan Horse … an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism … antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who’s willing to work for it.”
Whereas the Romney-Ryan vision emphasizes individual initiative and entrepreneurship, Obama’s appeal is to the values of community and common purpose.
Yet listening to Obama describe his Republican rivals recalls to mind Theodore Roosevelt assailing the “malefactors of great wealth” and Franklin Roosevelt savaging the “economic royalists” and “money-changers in the temple of our civilization.”
Obama’s rhetoric is not remotely in that league. But the campaign he intends to run, which can be deduced from his speech to the editors, is one that the Republicans had best take seriously.
Obama intends to plant himself in the populist-progressive tradition of William Jennings Bryan, FDR and Harry Truman and to demonize Mitt and the Ryan Republicans as the tireless toadies of the 1 percent.
Obama’s strategy comes straight out of the old socialist Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
Demagogic though his rhetoric may be, Obama’s argument has appeal. For millions of Americans agree with his fundamental points. The rich have gotten richer. The gap between rich and middle class has grown. The wages of workers have remained largely stagnant.
A second strength of the Obama campaign is that today, if one adds up all the beneficiaries and all the employees of government, the total exceeds 91 million Americans. Moreover, half of wage earners have by now been dropped from the federal income tax rolls.
The process has been going on since the Great Society was launched after Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964.
Each decade, more Americans are dropped off the income tax rolls, more move onto government payrolls, and more sign up for benefits from government programs.
If you benefit from programs you pay nothing to support, why would you vote for a Republican president who would cut those programs?
Not only ideology but the interests of scores of millions of Americans now dictate a vote for the party of government and against any party that promises to cut government.
We have arrived at the fail-safe point of the American republic. If we do not roll back government now, we will end up having to do it the way they are doing it in Italy, Spain and Greece, accompanied by riots in the streets.
The strategy Obama has chosen, however, to turn the 2012 election into a choice between standing with the middle-class many, or the Wall Street few, is not only polarizing. It may prove perilous for President Obama.
First, it is divisive and partisan, stripping Obama of all pretense to be the uniter who can bring red state and blue state together.
Second, though this populist assault will energize the left, it will unsettle the middle and depreciate the most precious political assets Obama has — his presidential office and his personal reputation as a nice and likable man.
Third, the timing is wrong. Such crescendo rhetoric usually comes in the last seven days before an election, not seven months.
Moreover, a campaign to demonize Romney as a right-wing extremist would represent de facto admission by Obama that he cannot win running on his record.
This tactic succeeded for the Democrats with Goldwater in 1964; it failed with Ronald Reagan in 1980. Romney’s political history and benign persona suggest that it will fail again.
Nevertheless, while Romney stays on the high road, his surrogates may have to dial up their rhetoric soon to match that of Barack Obama.