Bill Clinton the centrist, Rush Limbaugh among the "far right"? That's the gist of New York Times magazine political writer Matt Bai's thesis Wednesday on how the former president may actually have hurt President Obama's chances for reelection. Bai also made his usual case about "extreme forces" in the Republican Party.
Bai argued that Clinton made a strategic misstep when he advised Obama to hammer Romney as a "severe conservative."
But Mr. Clinton’s situation was different from either Mr. Romney’s or Mr. Obama’s. For one thing, Mr. Clinton’s brand of centrism -- which Republicans, and a lot of Democrats, tried to portray as expedient -- actually sprang from a coherent worldview. The charges of inauthenticity never seriously wounded Mr. Clinton because, unlike Mr. Romney, he had been remarkably consistent throughout his political life, and where there was inconsistency, Mr. Clinton had a singular ability to argue his way out of it.
Also, Mr. Clinton was able to set himself up against ideological extremism so successfully because he really was a centrist deal-maker, and everyone knew it. However much Mr. Obama may see himself in the same pragmatic vein, the voters, by and large, do not.
For a while this summer and into the fall, the Obama-Clinton strategy seemed to be working flawlessly. That’s because, almost inexplicably, Mr. Romney continued to run as if he were still contesting the Republican primaries. But in recent weeks, starting with the first debate, the challenger has made a brazen and frantic dash to the center, and Mr. Obama has often seemed off-balance, as if stunned that Mr. Romney thinks he can get away with such an obvious change of course so late in the race. Which, apparently, he can.
The bottom line here is that one can over-think this whole notion of framing your opponent. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the line of attack that works best is the one that really rings true. In the case of Mr. Romney, whatever his stated positions may be, the idea that he’s a far-right ideologue, a kind of Rush Limbaugh with better suits and frosty hair, just doesn’t feel especially persuasive.
If there’s one thing voters have shown time and time again in recent elections, it’s that they value authenticity above almost anything else. And Mr. Obama might have argued that this lack of a true north actually makes Mr. Romney more threatening to moderate voters than he would be if he were an actual ideologue, simply because he hasn’t shown any inclination to stand up to the more extreme forces in his own party.