Mitt Romney struck a surprisingly moderate note in an otherwise “severely” conservative primary fight this week, lamenting that he had problems with the right-wing base because he won’t “light [his] hair on fire” with incendiary anti-Obama rhetoric like his competitors. But Romney’s self-diagnosis is slightly off: He’s tried to get tough with Obama plenty, just with little success.
Democrats who talked to TPM smacked their forehead at the line. After all, Romney’s signature move for the first six months of the presidential race was to ignore his rivals in favor of going after the president. And he’s certainly been happy to allude to some of the darker anti-Obama themes on the right, if more carefully than others.
Romney made a show of his refusal to call Obama a “socialist,” but he’s accused the president of wanting an “entitlement society” in which “everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. And the only people to enjoy truly disproportionate rewards are the people who do the redistributing — the government.” In one debate Romney said Obama takes after “the socialist-democrats in Europe,” in another speech that Obama wants to impose a “European welfare state” that would “would poison the very spirit of America that allows us to be one nation under god.”
He penned a book, “No Apology,” whose very title suggested Obama wasn’t sufficiently proud of his country. In speeches, he’ll say Obama “doesn’t understand America” or employ similar lines.
The chief problem, several Republicans and conservative activists told TPM, isn’t that Romney won’t attack Obama. It’s that he hasn’t shown he wants their support enough. And the latest “hair on fire” line didn’t help, drawing condemnation from conservative pundits starting with Rush Limbaugh.
One unaligned GOP strategist dismissed the notion Romney wasn’t as willing to go after Obama, suggesting the reason his attacks weren’t connecting with voters “simply [has] something to do with Mitt’s personality.”
Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation and no stranger to “light my hair on fire” rhetoric about the president, noted that Romney didn’t attend a major Tea Party gathering until a much-publicized campaign stop in September.
“I don’t think he’s pulling his punches, I think he’s just not reaching out to the base and doesn’t know how to,” Phillips said. “His whole strategy has been to deliberately avoid the conservative base.”
Another free agent GOPer agreed that Romney’s outreach effort was a more central issue than his attacks themselves.
“Conservatives don’t want him to light his perfectly coiffed hair on fire,” the strategist said. “They want him to have some humility and actually earn their votes.”
Romney maintains some boundaries when it comes to anti-Obama lines. He doesn’t indulge the explicit Obama as dangerous foreign “other” memes quite the way Newt Gingrich does when he talks about the president’s “Kenyan anti-colonialism.” Romney will say Obama has “fought against religion,” but you won’t likely hear him call Obama’s own faith a “phony theology” as Rick Santorum recently put it.
His strategy could eventually serve him well even if he worries now that it’s holding him back. According to GOP strategist Rick Wilson, Romney has generally been the most “sophisticated” of the bunch in his anti-Obama rhetoric.
“We do know from polling and research that there are certain bright lines that candidates have to be careful about and where the media will swing to [Obama’s] defense,” he said. “Romney has, I think, been pretty smart about that.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.