Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Romney's "Sister Souljah" moment?

In 1992, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton famously launched an attack against the rapper Sister Souljah.  The remarks were surprising at the time--as they offended several key Democratic constituencies--but they served their purpose:  Clinton was able to win significant support from moderates and conservative Democrats, who had abandoned the Democratic Party in the prior three election cycles, and defeat George H. W. Bush that November. 

Given that the current election cycle bears some resemblance to 1992--a poorly-performing economy, an incumbent considered to be vulnerable, and an opposition party nominee who is presently having trouble with moderate voters, particularly in swing states, some commentators have called for Mitt Romney to produce a "Sister Souljah moment" of his own; a rebuke to his party's base that makes him attractive to swing voters.

Recently, the Romney campaign did do indeed something which has infuriated his base:  a seeming endorsement of RomneyCare, in response to an Obama ad aimed directly at Romney's groin.  In the ad, a worker laid off from a Bain Capital-owned firm, discusses his wife's subsequent death and the likely role that loss of health insurance may have played.  While the ad's factual case may not be very strong (the wife died many years after the husband lost his job), Romney's response was to suggest that if they had lived in Massachusetts and had access to the healthcare system there (which Romney is credited as the architect of), she might still be alive.

This thoroughly infuriated conservatives.  While not quite a Souljah-esque rebuke of a GOP sacred cow--for one thing, the comments came from a Romney spokesperson and not from the candidate himself--the GOP's right wing is outraged.  Erick Erickson (a grudging, holding-his-nose Romney supporter only supports the former governor because he's not Obama) tweeted that this might cost Romney the election, and suggested that the nominee needs to be "housebroken".  Were Romney, though, to himself endorse his signature gubernatorial initiative, it would be the first significant time since winning the GOP nomination, that he has challenged party orthodoxy on a significant issue.

If he decided to go with this, would it work?  Several issues suggest not.
  • The GOP hasn't spent enough time in the wilderness to accept such a rebuke.  When Clinton made his remarks, the Democrats had only occupied the White House for one term out of the past six, and were desperate for an electoral victory.  The party was simply tired of losing, and ready to abandon its ideological rigidity.  (Were Jimmy Carter to have said something similar in 1980, he would likely not have survived the primaries).  There's little evidence that the GOP has reached "peak wingnut"; the Republican party and the conservative intellectual machinery is still in the business of purging moderates and electing extremists.  
  • While Clinton himself had a reputation as a flip-flopper during the election (he was often derisively referred to as "pander bear" during the campaign); he did not have anywhere near the political baggage that Romney did.  It may well be the case that moderate voters simply conclude that this is yet another strategic tack from the presumptive GOP nominee, and not a serious statement of principle on an issue of key importance.
  • The specific issue of healthcare reform doesn't give Romney much electoral benefit--as a more robust version of the program is already law, and championed by his oopponent.
In prior instances where Romney has said things that have offended conservatives and produced outrage among the right-wing punditocracy, these have been swiftly walked back.  It's possible that Romney will do the same with this remark--disavowing it as an unwise remark from a campaign staffer.  For this to have any Sister Souljah potential, Romney will have to defend the position himself, and openly defy conservatives who remain skeptical about his political bona fides.

And the next time Romney stands up to Rush Limbaugh et al, will be the first.

But if he doesn't do it during the campaign, he'll probably never get the chance to do it from the Oval Office.