Presidential Rope-a-Dope (but Who's the Dope?)

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Last week my Atlantic colleague Bob Wright said he was expecting an imminent swerve in the narrative about Romney's prospects, not because of any actual developments but because the media couldn't tolerate an unchanging story. I got a preview of his post last week when visiting Princeton, where Bob lives. According to tradition, he said, this deviation would need three elements. As I recall he had only two when we spoke but his post the next day went one better and offered four: Romney's previously undiscovered sense of humor (check); foreign-policy switcheroo (in progress); Obama loses his mojo (check); and Romney's surprising talent as a debater (check).

Obama was genuinely awful in the debate, even measured against Bob's unusually rigorous pre-debate assessment -- "not a deft off-the-cuff speaker ... about average as recent presidents go ... not a great debater." In other words, there was an actual development. Nonetheless, I'd say Bob made a pretty good prediction.

I bring this up because, searching for the required third point to justify the swerve, I suggested this: "Romney's tactical brilliance in running such a pitiful campaign until barely a month before the election." I meant it as a joke ... but now I'm wondering. Part of Matt Miller's (very good) post-debate column on "The Audacity of Romney" jumped out at me.

If he wins, of course, Romney and his advisers will be hailed as geniuses for their timing, for bonding the party faithful to the ticket with the choice of Paul Ryan and a conservative-themed convention, and then dashing to the center for the home stretch.

That's true: If Romney wins, that's exactly what we'll say. But what I find myself wondering is whether, in that still unlikely event, the "geniuses for their timing" narrative might actually be correct. My grasp of American vernacular still isn't all it might be, but I think you call this "rope-a-dope" -- with Obama as the dope.

Me too, for that matter, let me hasten to add. These past months I've criticized Romney for failing to pivot to the center as soon as he got the nomination -- as Miller says, that's how this is supposed to work. I've called Romney's etch-a-sketch principles a necessary strength in the context of US politics, not a weakness, because he had to appeal to two such vastly different constituencies: the GOP base and swing voters. So why wasn't he exploiting that talent--subtly erasing his positions in the primaries, and rediscovering his inner governor of Massachusetts? For months, up to and including the convention, he came on as the severe conservative he'd pretended to be (or so I assumed) while contesting the nomination. He was turning into that man. Choosing Paul Ryan, the right's great hero in Congress, seemed to commit him to fight the general election as an ideological hardliner. That played entirely into the Obama campaign's hands: Romney the extremist, Romney the heartless capitalist, Romney the tool of an unreasoning and unpopular GOP-in-Congress, and all that. What on earth were Romney and his people thinking?

At the event that took me to Princeton, I went so far as to say that the Ryan pick was doubly idiotic: First you team up with an outspoken conservative, a conviction politician with ideas unappealing to the middle of the electorate, shackled to a detailed hardline program (the House budget); then you sideline him in the campaign, distance yourself from his program, and drift who knows where on policy. First repel the center, then disappoint the right. Brilliant, I said. Is it any wonder that Romney's losing the election?

It's possible I misspoke, though I won't be sure till next month.

If Romney wins, we'll tell the story a different way, just as Miller says. Not, "First repel the center, then disappoint the right," but, "First bond with the right, then appeal to the center." And we'll say the timing of the switch was indeed perfect. The prospect of a second Obama term has come into sufficiently sharp focus to terrify conservatives. They've come to the point -- finally! -- where they just want their guy to win, whatever it takes. If he thrashes Obama in a debate, they won't mind if he does it by reclaiming ownership of his Massachusetts health reform -- the same Obamacare they despise. They won't mind if he does it by promising not to cut taxes collected from the rich, or by insisting that we need regulation to make the economy work. Not long ago, they would have minded. Now, they don't.

I'd say this puts conservatives cheering Romney's big debate win squarely among the dopes. They've been played by their own candidate, according to this narrative. Maybe they haven't realized, or maybe they have and just don't care, so long as Obama goes down to defeat.

It also helps that Obama would be the biggest dope. His entire campaign, with Romney's unstinting help until this week, has arranged itself around Romney the evil capitalist, Romney the scourge of entitlements, Romney let's-make-the-rich-richer. When Romney the pragmatic moderate turns up instead, it's not very powerful (even though it's true) to reply, "But that's not what you've been saying up to now." A bit juvenile, somehow, to say, "Can't take it back. Can't take it back," which was Obama's first post-debate line of defense. Less than effective to counterpunch with, "We're just going to keep on attacking the man we thought you were, otherwise it's not fair." Also, the severe Romney has encouraged Obama to speak mainly to his own base, calculating that GOP extremism would deliver centrist votes to the president. The Obama campaign hasn't locked in the center's support, as it otherwise might have.

If he loses, of course, Romney will be an idiot again, not a genius, and I can go back to, "First repel the center..." What's harder to know, as we wait for hindsight to settle the point, is whether there's any truth to the other story -- and whether there was any truth to it before the debate. I mean, this can't have been the plan all along. Before it's too late, please tell me this wasn't the plan all along.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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