One of the first things I teach my undergraduate students is how to listen to the campaign talking heads and figure out what the poll said. That is, the poll that led to the strategy that led to the talking points that you're hearing from the various campaign talking heads almost in unison. This week, for example: Mitt Romney, conservative extremist.
Catch it. Axelrod (David, super-strategist). Cutter (Stephanie, deputy campaign manager). Biden (Joe), even. Romney is "extreme" on tax policy, foreign policy, immigration policy. You can catch the word "extreme" in all the comments.
I haven't seen these polls, but I've seen enough to know what they're saying: Swing voters aren't into extremes. That's why they're swing voters. They are basically, for want of a better term, moderate.
So what do you do when you're running against a candidate who, coming off of the primaries, isn't very well known? Easy. Fill in the blanks before he can. Convince swing voters that he is precisely what they don't want: an extremist.
Back in 1988, the last time a Massachusetts governor was nominated for president, most Americans actually thought he was a moderate, which was why he was running ahead of then-Vice President Bush in the polls. Unlike Romney, he had a "good war" in the primaries. He ended up beating candidates who were somewhat (Dick Gephardt) and very much (Rev. Jesse Jackson) more liberal than he was. So the Bush team smartly moved, very quickly, to paint him as a capital-L liberal. And it worked. Big time.
Twenty-four years later, I'm sure the polls are telling the Obama folks that the easiest guy for them to beat is a capital-E extreme capital-C conservative. So off they go.
There's just one difference.
Michael Dukakis was, and is, a liberal. Proudly. Painting him as one was both easy and authentic. It worked because it was true.
Romney is a much tougher sell as an extreme conservative.
Can we talk? Extreme conservatives don't get elected in Massachusetts. Liberals and lobsters. If Romney were an extreme conservative, he would have locked up the Republican nomination in February, not April.
National Public Radio did a story this past week about the new Obama "extreme conservative" offensive. They were focused on Ohio, which is as good a place to focus as any. They interviewed both Republicans and Democrats. And here's the striking thing: None of the folks they interviewed thought Romney was an extreme conservative. The conservatives, as a matter of fact, weren't quite convinced that he was conservative enough. Seriously, what kind of extreme conservative would have successfully promoted "RomneyCare" and generally supported gay rights and women's rights?
The only problem with a good strategy is that it might not actually fit the guy you're running against.
Can I see Romney as a hopeless opportunist? Sure. All things to all people. A liberal in Massachusetts. A conservative in New Hampshire. Hard core in March, moderate in August. As they used to say in Massachusetts, he wasn't pro-choice or anti-choice; he was multiple-choice. Multiple-choice Mitt. That works. The only problem is that people think all politicians are opportunists. Being an extreme conservative is much worse — or, from the Obama perspective, much better.
Can I see Romney as a hopelessly out-of-touch rich guy, the boy from Bain, the man with the Cadillacs and the horses and the offshore investments and the friends who own (and don't just root for) NASCAR teams? That works. Lower taxes for money you don't earn? Sure. Bailouts for Wall Street but not for Detroit? Sure.
Only problem is, everybody who runs for president is rich by the time they do. And people don't hate rich people nearly as much as they do extremists.
Here's the thing about presidential politics: At the end of the day, it has to ring true. Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich certainly would have been easier for Obama to beat, because their views really are more extreme. Romney is a hard pill for many conservatives to swallow precisely because he is less conservative than they'd like.
Sometime between now and November, the president's team is going to have to focus on the opponent they've got, instead of the one they would have preferred.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.