by Paul Goldman
The new Romney welfare ad is worth some discussion for this reason: Why does Mitt Romney seemingly want to pick a fight with former President Bill Clinton?
Indeed, this Romney ad starts out praising Clinton, a Democratic former president who is backing Barack Obama, indeed will nominate him for a second term at the Democratic Convention. Romney knows Clinton will attack this welfare ad, and he knows Clinton’s criticism will get huge attention.
So again: Why does Romney want to seemingly pick a fight with Clinton, who is far more popular? That’s what folks should be noodling over, not so much the ad’s substance. What’s Romney’s strategy as regards Bill Clinton and why?
In that regard, the Romney ad may not be primarily a welfare spot. Instead, it may be Romney trying to develop a pitch for bipartisanship. How so?
To win the presidency, Romney needs to score a lot higher among independent voters. The myth that he can somehow win over a big number of working class Democrats is just that, a myth. One that might have been true in 1980 but not now. Why? Because, by and large, the Reagan Democrats of 1980 have since become Republicans or Independents.
Moreover, remember that Clinton never got more than 49.9% of the vote. His favorable rating is a lot higher now, but he lost a lot of folks to Perot. Obama got 52.9%. Thus, the issue is not about Clinton voters, but rather, whether Obama will lose millions of those who voted for him in 2008. These folks were not Democrats, however.
The point being: they liked Clinton, still like him, but never voted for him. He has no magic wand in that regard. What we do know about them is this: They aren’t big Republican voters either. Bush barely got a majority of the popular once, and less than 48% the last time.
Truth is: Those working class “whites” being targeted are not Democrats, they are not Republicans. They don’t much like either party. And I bet they are among the most mad at what they see as the gridlock in DC. They don’t like big business or Wall Street, and this is hurting Romney big time with them.
My hunch: Clinton has said he wants to keep taxes the same for 2013. I think some of the top people in the Romney camp think they see away to position their guy as someone who can change the tone in the Washington and work with Democrats to solve the nation’s fiscal problems. This is the generic parameter to what these voters want to hear this year.
As a practical matter, no Republican will be seen wanting to work with the President. They know this is a sure way to become persona non grata in the GOP. But there are Democrats who will publicly agree to work with Romney, as that is good politics in their districts.
Romney wants to be seen as working for a Clinton thing: that is good bipartisan politics, as his camp sees it. The welfare issue helps the GOP, not Democrats this year. This logic suggests Romney needed to be more nuanced in the welfare ad, so the failure to do so was a political mistake.
But on the issue of wanting to confront Clinton, that was intentional, and thus it has to be part of some strategy, not a one-off mistake.
Remember: McCain also thought his best path to winning was the bipartisan route. What we forget was that Obama stole it from him, and had a better case to make in that regard. If Romney can sell himself as a problem solver willing to work with anyone – remember, the Massachusetts legislature was overwhelmingly Democratic when he was governor – it has some potential to get votes in the independent middle.
Notice how Newt Gingrich, who took credit for welfare reform during the GOP primaries, has been quiet on the issue so far. That has to be due to the Romney camp asking him. At some point, they will want to roll Newt out on the matter. But his image is so bad, I can’t see it helping.
Net, net: Let’s see if Mitt is trying to develop a bipartisan piece of the Romney puzzle. It is win-win if he can do it credibly. But I, for one, don’t believe he can pull it off. We shall see.