Obama seeking to challenge Mitt's mutation
THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE:Tonight’s debate format could make it hard for the president to question Romney’s new persona, writes LARA MARLOWEin Washington
WHEN US president Barack Obama meets Republican candidate Mitt Romney in Hempstead, Long Island, tonight, Obama will try to succeed where he failed in Denver on October 3rd, in portraying Romney as a dishonest politician who changes policies like he changes his socks.
The sudden, blatant transformation of Romney – his “extreme makeover” in Obama’s words – occurred when the Republican was headed for near certain defeat on November 6th. Romney’s wife, Ann, and eldest son, Tagg, reportedly urged him to move towards the centre before it was too late.
Alarmingly for the Obama campaign, the strategy worked. Millions of voters tuned in to the campaign for the first time on October 3rd and liked what they heard. Romney shot up in the polls. With only three weeks to go before the presidential election, the candidates are virtually tied.
The “town hall” format of tonight’s debate, in which members of the audience put forward questions, could make it difficult for Obama to point out contradictions between the Romney of a few months ago and his new persona.
Humour, as wielded by former US president Bill Clinton in Las Vegas on October 9th, has so far proved the most effective method.
Clinton compared Romney to “the closer” in a Bain Capital deal. “So he shows up, doesn’t really know much about the deal and says, ‘Tell me what I’m supposed to say to close’,” Clinton joked.
In the difficult two weeks since their last debate, Obama has dwelled often on Romney’s transformation.
“After running for more than a year in which he called himself ‘severely conservative’, Mitt Romney is trying to convince you that he was severely kidding,” Obama said at a rally on October 11th. “Suddenly, he loves the middle class – he can’t stop talking enough about them. He loves Medicare, loves teachers. He even loves the most important parts of Obamacare. What happened?”
On at least a half-dozen policy issues, ranging from taxation to Medicare and his own record of confronting or working with Democrats, the present Romney is at odds with his own past. The transfiguration goes beyond “flip-flopping”, said a New York Times editorial, which concluded that Romney has merely “slapped whitewash” on extreme positions he still holds.
“We’re going to cut taxes on everyone across the country by 20 per cent, including the top 1 per cent,” Romney insisted in a debate last winter.
But that position became untenable after Romney called 47 per cent of Americans freeloaders in a secretly recorded video.
The new Mitt of October 3rd promised: “I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy.”
Romney has expressed both fervent pro- and anti-abortion stands, according to what was politically expedient at the time.
In one of his more slippery pronouncements, he recently told the Des Moines Register: “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”
But Romney has promised to cut financing for Planned Parenthood, one of the few remaining abortion providers in the US. And he would appoint supreme court justices who would overturn Roe v Wade, the decision that legalised abortion.
“He [Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers,” Romney said after the union-busting governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin survived a recall vote last June.
“Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”
On October 3rd, Romney said: “I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and grants that go to people going to college.”
While Democrats concentrate on the chameleon-like change in Romney’s political colouration, Republicans strive to turn the Obama administration’s handling of the September 11th attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, in which four Americans were killed, including the US ambassador, into a major campaign issue.
With unemployment now at 7.8 per cent, the lowest rate since Obama’s election, Republicans have shifted emphasis to the deaths in Libya, which they claim are proof of Obama’s poor leadership and the lack of transparency in his administration.
Obama’s opinion poll rating for foreign policy fell significantly after the September 11th killings.
Republican senator Lindsey Graham said Benghazi proved that “the truth is we’re not safer. Al-Qaeda is alive and counterattacking. This whole region is about to explode.”
The Republican chairman of the House oversight and government reform committee, Darrell Issa, called Obama’s claims of success in ordering the death of Osama bin Laden and weakening al-Qaeda “a mission-accomplished moment”, comparing them to George W Bush’s premature declaration of victory in Iraq in 2003.
Benghazi was the weakest link in US vice-president Joe Biden’s performance in his debate with Paul Ryan, and Romney is certain to bring up the issue again tonight. Biden seemed to blame the US state department and intelligence agencies for not informing the White House about an earlier request for better security, or the true causes of the raid.
Romney was initially stung by criticism of his own denunciation of the administration on the day of the attack, and Democrats continue to accuse Republicans of exploiting the tragedy for political gain. Five days later, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, called the lethal raid a “spontaneous reaction” to an anti-Islam video.
On the Late Show with David Letterman, Obama also attributed motivation for the attack to an “extremely offensive video directed at Muhammad and Islam”.
The administration later admitted the deaths in Benghazi were the result of a “terrorist attack”. Officials responsible for diplomatic security in Libya told a House committee that the embassy in Tripoli – not the consulate in Benghazi – had requested beefed-up security for the mission, but the state department rejected that request.
Democrats have accused the Republicans of hypocrisy, pointing out that House Republicans blocked almost half a billion dollars in funding requests for state department security abroad.