In a meeting a few weeks ago at his Harlem office, Bill Clinton told Obama campaign manager Jim Messina to drop the “flip-flopper” attack on Mitt Romney and to go instead for the “severe conservative” angle, boxing him into the less palatable positions that he’d taken on social issues during the Republican primaries and defining him for low-information voters as the second coming of Pat Buchanan. But Romney seems to be doing that for himself.
His marginalization of foreign policy adviser Richard Grenell – a move that led Grenell to resign on Tuesday– is just another example of the kowtowing to the Religious Right that could lead him off an electoral cliff in November.
I won’t belabor the Grenell story: In a nutshell, he’s a gay Republican and former U.S. spokesman at the United Nations who came onboard Romney’s campaign three weeks ago as a foreign policy aid to the chagrin of some conservative backers, and found himself muzzled almost immediately. According to the New York Times, the last straw came a week ago when a senior campaign aid asked Grenell not to speak on conference call that Grenell himself had organized lest his presence disrupt Romney’s fragile détente with the Right.
I don’t know if that’s true - I hope it’s not.
But Republicans have a knack for harpooning their general election prospects with misguided panders to the Right. Two weeks ago, for instance, Newt Gingrich posted a YouTube clip to support Amendment One, a ban on gay marriage, civil union and domestic partnership in North Carolina. This bill is doomed to failure. Even if it passes the referendum – and it might – it’ll invalidate hundreds of HETEREOSEXUAL partnerships, face a court challenge and get thrown out Prop 8-style. And at a GOP debate last summer, no fewer than five Republican candidates called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, even though public support for gay marriage had just hit a record high that spring at 53 percent.
Now to be fair, Democrats have pandered to the Right too. Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law.
But Democrats have rebranded themselves as a social service provider (see Obama’s new “Julia” ad) and calculated that their base no longer requires them to touch on marriage at all, at least at the federal level. That gives Obama the freedom to stake out an ambiguous position – he’s “evolving,” apparently – without much backlash from either side.
Republicans, on the other hand, have a problem. Republicans have tied their fate – and the fate of “civilization,” to quote Gingrich – to social issues like marriage. That puts them into an adversarial relationship with people on the other side of the marriage issue, even ones like Richard Grenell, a fellow Republican. That’s a stupid strategy even if conservatives DO make up 40 percent of the electorate. It’s also what makes Bill Clinton’s advice to team Obama so smart: The conventional wisdom is that
Obama has an uphill climb to re-election. But Romney’s kowtowing to the Religious Right will make it a lot harder for him to appeal to the people in the middle and perhaps to his own former spokesman, for that matter.