There have been many reasons given why Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in the presidential election, from Obama’s ability to turn out his base and his campaign’s successful use of micro-targeting to reach voters in swing states, to the Romney campaign’s inability to capitalize on missteps made by Obama and the epic failure to turn out their voters. But the reason most often repeated by the pundits is the fact that Romney allowed the Obama campaign to define him early as a rich, unfeeling, uncaring man. This was a perception he was never able to shake, and one that exit polls showed ultimately cost him the election.
Much of the President’s ability as a political figure lies in his ability to do just that: define his opponents by misrepresenting their positions as radical and as outside the mainstream, so that he can position himself as the pragmatist. When he presents any part of his agenda he always prefaces it with the “fact” that most Americans, including Republicans, support his agenda. The congressional Republicans are out of touch, he says, even with their own party. If they would only be willing to compromise (read: capitulate), things would get done, and the economy would be strong once again.
As early as February 2009, Obama attacked the Republican argument for smaller government by calling it “a philosophy that says every problem can be solved if only government would step out of the way; that if government were just dismantled, divvied up into tax breaks, and handed out to the wealthiest among us, it would somehow benefit us all,” which is obviously a misrepresentation. When speaking about the GOP refusals to go along with his, to quote Sen. Rubio, “obsession with raising taxes,” he “explains”that “tax cuts alone can’t solve all of our economic problems” — as if that is what Republicans believe.
This use of hollow arguments against imaginary foes that are presented as political adversaries is known as a “straw man argument.” Quite simply, Barack Obama is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men.
The problem for Republicans is that his use of this tactic is effective. Part of its effectiveness is that it presents a difficult question as to how to fight back. On the one hand, if they allow themselves to be defined by the extreme caricatures drawn of their positions by the president, most of the country will be turned off due to their perceived extremism. But taking the time to address these charges has drawbacks of its own. It gives the charge more airtime by continuing to discuss it, and it puts them in the awkward position of having to explain why they don’t actually believe that outlandish accusation.
That is why it was so satisfying to see the two GOP politicians who have been arguably the most vocal about the direction of the party since Romney’s loss embracing new tactics in dealing with this. In the State of the Union address, the President said that Congress ought to take up his gun control proposals because the victims of “… gun violence … deserve a simple vote.” He thus set up a straw man argument that makes it seem as though opponents of his proposals somehow are pro-gun violence. Governor Bobby Jindal quickly quipped: “A vote to end violence would be unanimous. After which we should vote to end poverty, disease, war, divorce and mosquitoes.” Mocking an intellectually lazy argument is a great strategy. First off, it exposes the absurdity of the argument by peeling off the veneer of soaring rhetoric and revealing its shallowness. And second, it positions Jindal on the higher ground after it becomes clear that the President is not willing to engage in honest debate.
The other strategy being employed to combat this is just as effective, and it was the basis of Sen. Marco Rubio’s rebuttal to the State of the Union address. Rubio’s tactic wasn’t to employ mockery, but rather to express disappointment in the president’s use of straw men, and attack him for it. As he said, “In the short time I’ve been here in Washington, nothing has frustrated me more than false choices like the ones the President laid out tonight.”
Rubio catalogued how President Obama attacks Republicans who don’t think EPA regulations are cost effective as “wanting dirty water and dirty air.” He told of how proposing to block grant entitlements so that states can manage them more efficiently means, in the president’s world, that you want to “leave the elderly and disabled to fend for themselves.” And if you disagree with the president’s agenda — it automatically means that you “only care about rich people.”
Are the tactics now being employed an effective counterpunch to the president’s attacks? The answer seems to be that they are definitely more effective than the alternative. And if nothing else, playing offense instead of defense will go a long way toward making the base happy that the GOP is no longer just lying back and letting itself be pummeled rhetorically by Barack Obama.