As Rob notes below, watching the Obama campaign develop a particularly bad case of the yips over the past few weeks has been spectacularly entertaining. We're talking Chris Matthews on Jeopardy! entertaining; Beauty pageant contestant getting a question about Fermat's Last Theorem entertaining (OK, that one hasn't happened yet -- but don't think for a second that it won't be my life's work).
To a certain extent, this is an inevitable byproduct of the 2008 campaign. I wrote as far back as 2009 that the problem with running as a national Rorschach test was that Rorschach tests don't work if you tell the patient what the image is. And eventually, by actually being forced to govern, that was what Obama was going to have to do -- define himself out of being everything to everyone. So here we are four years later and we actually know who Barack Obama is: Dennis Kucinich with a kill list and a jump shot. That's tough to run on.
The enervated condition of the Obama campaign is a great help to Mitt Romney, but it still falls to the Republican candidate to convert Obama's turnovers into points. Over the past few weeks, Romney has generally been doing a fine job of this. But on Obama's immigration gambit, he seems to have been caught totally flat-footed. Here's how The Hill reports Romney's reaction to questions on the issue over the weekend:
Asked about whether he would repeal the new policy on CBS’s “Face the Nation”, Romney vowed to seek long-term immigration reform, but avoided a clear stance on Obama’s new deportation policies.
“Well, it would be overtaken by events if you will, by virtue of my putting in place a long-term solution with legislation which creates law that relates to these individuals such that they know what their setting is going to be, not just for the term of a president but on a permanent basis,” said Romney.
Asked if he would leave Obama’s policy in place while he worked out a long-term policy, Romney replied, “we will look at that setting as we reach that.”
Can anyone tell me what this means (apart from the fact that Romney has been reading Sarah Palin's book on syntax -- "The Order in Which the Usage of Words is Ordered to Convey the Meaning of the Words Being Used")? Does Romney have a secret plan for immigration?
I'm not sure that the electoral real estate available to Romney on this issue justifies the gymnastics. Targeting individuals whose votes may swing based on a candidate's openness to giving legal status to illegal immigrants probably doesn't get him anywhere. If you're going to vote based on that factor, you're probably going to cast your ballot for the guy announcing a hammer and tongs executive order in the Rose Garden instead of the guy who's talking about the issue like Nostradamus on "Face the Nation." In truth, I suspect there's not a ton of daylight between Romney and Obama on this issue. But even if that was crystal clear to the public, I'd be surprised if it was a boon for Romney.
Because he doesn't want to come out swinging on the substance of immigration reform, Romney's main knock on Obama has been that the president had three and a half years to deal with immigration and waiting until now to address it demonstrates that the motivation is purely political. That's a weak argument. Those who care about the issue are unlikely to care what the motivation was. And the general rule of thumb is that if you're arguing that the other side is playing politics, you're losing the debate.
As we move into another week of the messaging wars, it's better, I think, for the Romney campaign to embrace the criticism made by Charles Krauthammer. Here's how the Daily Caller reports the comments he made on Friday's edition of Fox News' "Special Report":
Krauthammer told host Chris Wallace that this was a so-called “end-run” around the legislative branch of the federal government and explained how it defied the Constitution.
“Beyond the pandering, beyond the politics, beyond the process — is simple constitutional decency,” Krauthammer explained. “This is out-and-out lawlessness. You had a clip of the president himself say months ago ‘I cannot do this on my own because there are laws on the books.’ Well, I have news for president — the laws remain on the books. They haven’t changed.”
This line of argument has two great virtues for Romney. First, it's correct. Second, it fits into a broader narrative. This comes from the same president who upended the conventional role of secured creditors in the auto bailouts, who eviscerated the traditional constitutional understanding of the recess appointment power, who continuously walks all over traditional protections of religious liberty, and who -- one hopes -- will soon be found to have trespassed across constitutional boundaries with Obamacare.
That's the line of attack: not that a professional politician is motivated by political considerations, but that a former law school lecturer who rose to prominence criticizing the legal excesses of the previous administration won't allow his authority to be cabined by something as quaint as the Constitution of the United States.