Think about what it takes to be a viable Republican candidate today. You have to denounce Big Government and high taxes without alienating the older voters who were the key to G.O.P. victories last year — and who, even as they declare their hatred of government, will balk at any hint of cuts to Social Security and Medicare (death panels!).Krugman concludes that Romney’s strategy is “to pretend that he shares the ignorance and misconceptions of the Republican base.” I’m not sure that Romney and his highly paid consultants expect Republican voters to believe what he says. Rather, the Romney team is presenting him as willing to say anything in order to attack President Obama.
And you also have to denounce President Obama, who enacted a Republican-designed health reform and killed Osama bin Laden, as a radical socialist who is undermining American security.
So what kind of politician can meet these basic G.O.P. requirements? There are only two ways to make the cut: to be totally cynical or to be totally clueless.
Mitt Romney embodies the first option. He’s not a stupid man; he knows perfectly well, to take a not incidental example, that the Obama health reform is identical in all important respects to the reform he himself introduced in Massachusetts — but that doesn’t stop him from denouncing the Obama plan as a vast government takeover that is nothing like what he did. He presumably knows how to read a budget, which means that he must know that defense spending has continued to rise under the current administration, but this doesn’t stop him from pledging to reverse Mr. Obama’s “massive defense cuts.”
Consider the Romney campaign’s much-criticized television commercial “quoting” President Obama. That ad was doubly deceptive. First, Obama never said about his own campaign, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” What’s more, the President has never stopped talking about the economy. For months he’s been pressing the Republicans in Congress to do more of what mainstream economists recommend to improve it.
All that commercial shows is that Romney is willing to play dirty in attacking the President—which is what the Republican base is looking for. Those core voters aren’t really motivated by deficit reduction, or cutting government services and benefits (especially their own, as Krugman notes), or foreign policy.
Grass-roots Republicans today are fired up almost solely about attacking Obama. Romney’s ad shows them that despite his nice-guy manners he’s willing to play just as dirty as the crazier candidates. He’s ready to claim that Obama apologized for American foreign policy, threatens the free market, and never worked in the private sector. All those statements are lies, but Romney has to tell them to keep up with his rivals.