The Obama campaign does not want this election to be a referendum on the President’s record. And so for months we’ve been told that this election is a choice between two contrasting views of the American future—“the clearest choice of any time in a generation,” as President Obama said at his party’s convention in Charlotte. When Mitt Romney bypassed “safe picks” and chose a conservative reformer, Paul Ryan, as his running mate, the Left was giddy. This would be the choice-election they were hoping for.
The choice that Obama wants to offer the American people is this: On the one hand is a hard-working (if humbled) incumbent who wants the chance to finish the hard work he’s started—putting a robust government into the business of building the middle class (and asking the wealthiest among us to do their fair share) in order to dig this country out of the economic mess left by the Last Guy. Contrast this to Mitt Romney: a bland, out-of-touch millionaire who wants to lower tax rates for the rich.
By painting Romney as a right-wing ideologue (tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts!), a “social-Darwinist” (ending Medicare as we know it!), and a capitalistic “vampire” (Bain!), not only does the Obama campaign hope to distract voters from the enormous disappointments of the last four years, the campaign hopes to pass off Obama’s own far-left progressive ideas as middle-of-the-road common sense.
This is the campaign the Obama team has been running, and, so far, winning. But Wednesday’s debate revealed the great flaw in this strategy, namely, Obama has been running as something he’s not against a candidate that doesn’t exist. Mitt Romney is certainly rich, but he’s also very smart, a proven executive, and the most ideologically moderate presidential candidate nominated by either party in decades.
Wednesday night, President Obama showed up as though he was expecting to debate the straw man he’s so carefully constructed these last few months. What he found was a determined opponent—a man ready to defend his positions while calling out the President on his disastrous record.
The President looked alternately unprepared, annoyed, and overmatched.
That’s the problem with straw men: sooner or later, they get exposed. In the middle of the debate, David Freddoso of the Washington Examiner put it very succinctly (via Twitter): “If you’ve been getting all your info from Obama ads up to now, you’re starting to feel like you’ve been lied to.”
The Obama campaign’s post-debate damage-control plan consists of equal parts re-erecting the straw man and simple denial. Pay no attention to the man who ran circles around the President in Wednesday night’s debate; he’s not real. (Yesterday President Obama actually told a crowd at a campaign event in Colorado that the Mitt Romney who routed him in the debate wasn’t the really Mitt Romney. Good luck convincing the 67 million Americans who watched the debate that they should believe the President rather than their own lyin’ eyes.)
A few weeks before the debate, Republican VP-candidate Paul Ryan described President Obama as a “pyromaniac in a field of straw men,” setting up phony opposition arguments and then destroying them with effortless aplomb. On Wednesday night, that strategy backfired badly and the President got burned.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.