- Published on Wednesday, 17 October 2012 15:44
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Richard Nixon is a ghost most Republicans, those that even remember him (and a few, like me, who remember him fondly), would like to forget. But, say what you will about him, he knew a lot about running for President. No other person, with the exception of FDR, has been on a national ballot as many times as Nixon. That’s why, long after he resigned, GOP nominees regularly sought out his advice. Even Democrat George McGovern, who lost to Nixon in 1972, while considering another run for President in 1976 talked to his former adversary about his prospects. Nixon had a lot of advice, but to prospective party nominees, it was simple, “run to the right to get the nomination, secure your base, and then run to the middle in the general election.” Nixon died almost twenty years ago, but his candid advice, still carries weight.
Two weeks ago I had this election all figured out. Mitt Romney, hapless, caught in his 47% remark, what those of us in Virginia might call his own “Macaca Moment,” and saddled by a GOP right wing was headed for defeat. Obama was ahead in all but one of the major swing states and it looked like the President was on his way to a second term.
However, with apologies to a long ago Broadway Musical, “a funny thing happened on the way to the White House.” There was a debate, one I was sure the President would win easily, but the thing is, he didn’t. It was without qualification one of the most disastrous debate performances since the national debates began back in 1960. The question, once the media had absorbed the shock such a poor performance, was simply, “is it fatal?” The answer is probably not. The President’s debate debacle has been critiqued by hundreds of commentators. I can’t add anything more to it, save to say that it was major setback for the Obama campaign. However, it’s not the end of the Obama candidacy, not by any means, and he will probably do better in the second and third debates. But, his abysmal performance did give Romney a second wind. In the two weeks since the debate, Romney, thanks no doubt to renewed confidence and more careful management of his sound bites, has managed to hang on to the momentum he found that evening. And it shows in his campaign. It finally has the life and vigor it lacked for so long.
However, it appears that Romney is also following Richard Nixon’s advice and that’s to tack back to the center. What’s more is that this seems to represent a major shift in his campaign strategy. Up until the debate, the Romney strategy was to secure the conservative base and hope that the bad economy would propel him to the White House. Unfortunately what he was finding out was that the conservative base was also dragging him down. His message about the economy wasn’t even getting through. He was doing badly with women, a key deciding vote in this election, and his harsh stance against every provision of the new health care bill, was hurting him too.
And so, with a level of political skill many didn’t think he had, Romney gently tacked back to the center. Or, at least he moved closer to the center than he had been. During the debate he acknowledged that there were some portions of the health care bill he would keep. This included the provision prohibiting coverage discrimination based on prior existing conditions, and a clause allowing parents to keep their children on their policies until they are 26. Also, citing his experience in Massachusetts, he said yes of course, he would work with the other side. But, that wasn’t all. Shortly after the debate, in a carefully prepared and well delivered comment he apologized for his 47% remark. It was damage control at its finest. But, putting the cap on it all was a promise, that in spite of his adamant opposition to abortion, he would not introduce any abortion related legislation.
The response has been surprisingly positive. He hasn’t been accused of flip flopping, but rather, his comments have been taken with a sense of relief. Yes, relief. Clearly, many voters who couldn’t vote for him because of his 47% gaffe, his opposition, to the pre-existing conditions protections of the President’s health care plan, or his stance on abortion, are now willing to give him a second look. But, a lot like in sales, while having gotten their attention, and like interested customers, they’re taking notes Romney hasn’t sealed the deal yet either. There is no time left for major changes in strategy. This is it. But Romney’s new approach, which began with that first debate, was well timed. He seems to be doing what he couldn’t do before. Namely, moving away from the right wing issues that were weighing him down, and instead move towards the discussion he is most comfortable with and that’s restarting the economy.
By David S. Kerr