For months on end—as the country has been stuck in a miserable economic "recovery" and the federal government has barreled toward a fiscal crisis—the Obama campaign has taken pains to remind an anxious nation that Mitt Romney is unfit for the presidency because he once took a family road trip with his dog in a carrier strapped to the roof of his car.
Hence the strong whiff of undisguised glee from Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom Wednesday, as he re-tweeted a photograph of President Obama and his dog Bo.
"In hindsight, a chilling photo," Fehrnstrom wrote, after the Daily Caller’s Jim Treacher reminded the world that in his first memoir Obama admitted to having eaten dog while a boy in Indonesia. Romney spokesman Ryan Williams giddily tweeted an ABC News report on Obama’s culinary taste, noting that this was "Not the headline Team Obama was looking for." Indeed, it was not. Fehrnstrom’s message: You think Romney is cruel to canines? Well, Obama EATS THEM.
That was par for the course. Romney’s operation has responded well so far to the Obama campaign’s tactical strikes. Republicans finally and lustily engaged in the "war on women" last week when the presumptive GOP nominee noted that women have borne the brunt of job losses under Obama. Ann Romney pimp-slapped Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen for saying she had "never worked a day in her life." Romney’s Wednesday "pre-buttal" to the president’s North Carolina convention address was another clever stunt.
But the coming general election campaign will be expensive, nasty, brutish, and long. There will be ups and downs. Romney or someone close to him will put his foot in his mouth once (or several times) more. No one can predict the coming events that will shape the race. Most worrisome: There will be the constant temptation to trade barbs and snarky jibes over electronic media. Call it the Twitter Trap.
A candidate falls into the Twitter Trap when he allocates substantial time, energy, and resources to chasing the news cycle and scoring points with reporters and pundits. This sort of strategy may keep staff busy and amused, but it is not the way to victory. Romney must avoid playing at Obama’s level. He must project an image appropriate to the office of the presidency while attacking endlessly the incumbent’s record on the economy, the debt, and health care. He must strike a drastic contrast with the president, who is going to run this campaign small and petty because he has no other options.
A typical incumbent tells the American people that he deserves reelection because the country is doing well and his administration has overseen popular initiatives. But the country is not doing well and Obama’s "accomplishments" are, in the view of most Americans, nothing of the sort. No one but economists can seriously believe that the stimulus was a success. The health care law is a disaster in the making that Americans want to repeal—if the Supreme Court does not do it for them.
Obama is blocking the popular Keystone XL pipeline while throwing money at cronies who run alternative energy companies. He has failed to revive the American economy, address the looming entitlements crisis, and end the Iranian nuclear program. He presided over one of the worst "shellackings" in the history of his party and has been unable to sway public opinion when it is not already on his side. The president is a loser, politically and substantively.
Obama has been reduced in stature. Four years ago he was going to change the world. Now his only path to reelection is through scaring his coalition into thinking Romney will seize its birth control, slash its benefits, and reinstate Jim Crow. He has to bog the GOP candidate down in a net of Buffett-Rule-like gimmicks and egregious insinuations about Romney’s wealth and religion.
The worst thing Romney could do is step into the net. Let aides trade Tweets with Obama spokesmen now and then, but don’t make it a priority. Let others take the low road.
When David Axelrod mentions the dog, remind the country that this is the worst recovery in history. When David Plouffe mentions the rich, let Americans know that everyone’s taxes should be low, that everyone’s taxes are scheduled to spike on Jan. 1, that Obamacare includes numerous taxes on every American, and that the middle class has fared the worst in the Obama economy. When Debbie Wasserman Schultz sneers that Republicans are coming after women, stress the importance of a culture of life and Obamacare’s threat to religious liberty. Ask every audience Reagan’s question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Unless the audience is filled with TARP recipients and government workers, the answer will be no.
The deeper into the year we get, the more desperate Obama is likely to become. There will be incendiary rhetoric. The smears will be over the top. The hits will be exaggerated; some may draw blood. The Twitter Trap will beckon. But Romney can’t succumb. He can’t flinch.
Because it’s a dog-eat-dog world. And only the Alpha gets the win.