MSNBC’s Steve Benen explains a central flaw in Mitt Romney’s strategy of elevating Bill Clinton:
Romney is making a serious mistake building up Clinton as a credible, respected voice who Americans should not only remember fondly, but listen to when it comes to politics and policy. In other words, Romney's "wedge" strategy is premised on elevating the Democratic icon on purpose.That’s exactly right.
Regardless of the fact that the differences between Clinton and Obama are effectively non-existent, what exactly is Romney's plan when Clinton starts campaigning aggressively on Obama's behalf, delivering a major primetime address in support of Obama during the Democratic National Convention?
Or more to the point, if Romney is spending much of 2012 telling voters that Clinton is reliable and worthy of respect, won't that be a problem when the Big Dog is urging voters to rally behind Barack Obama and reject Romney's candidacy?
I don’t remember if I’ve ever made this point publicly (I know I have privately, often) but Democrats did the same thing with John McCain from the late 1990s through 2006 or so.* McCain would come to town to campaign for a Republican candidate, and the Democratic campaign would put out a press release hyping disagreements between McCain and the Republican, and playing up areas of agreement between McCain and the Democrat. I remember one mid-2000s Democratic campaign press release that announced (this is a very close paraphrase) “[Democratic candidate] and John McCain fight for working families.” Then McCain campaigned for the Republican.
Just about the best the Democratic campaigns could hope for as a result of these tactics was a line or two deep in a newspaper writeup of the GOP campaign event noting an area of disagreement between McCain and the Republican candidate. Meanwhile, they’re enhancing the credibility of someone who is endorsing and campaigning for their opponent. And, as an added drawback, they’re building up the credibility of someone who was widely seen as the best future presidential candidate the Republican Party had to offer.
If such tactics have little potential payoff, and obvious unintended consequences, why do campaigns seem to like them so much? In part because it’s the kind of superficially smart thing that wins political operatives praise from their colleagues and reporters. And because a lot of people don’t know the difference between superficially smart things that win praise from political reporters and operatives and things that are actually smart.
* The harshness of this post is addressed to my younger self as much as anyone else: In my time at the DNC and DCCC in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I engaged in this kind of thing, sometimes enthusiastically. I should also acknowledge that these are the kinds of things that get far more attention than they deserve: A Democratic Senate campaign was no more likely to be lost by building up John McCain than it was to be won by driving a wedge between McCain and the Republican candidate. These tactics just don’t matter all that much, though they sometimes demonstrate broader and (somewhat) more significant tendencies, like messaging that inadvertently reinforces counterproductive frames. Finally, and perversely: There is some benefit to being seen as smart and effective by the reporters who cover your campaign, even if it is as a result of something that is neither.