The narratives are flying at warp speed in the presidential election. Private equity. Public equity. Bain. Solyndra. President Obama undercut by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and ex-governor Ed Rendell. Mitt Romney drowned out by The Donald. What’s a person to think?
The general election is only a few weeks old. What has happened in those weeks is not insignificant, because of what they say about the directions the two campaigns are heading and the arguments they want to make, rather than because one candidate or the other has seized the temporary advantage.
What’s important to remember is that there are two audiences for political news. One is the community of campaign workers, strategists, news organizations and highly interested citizens who are hanging on every development. They are keeping score on a minute-by-minute basis — and sometimes trying to extrapolate to November from episodes that will soon be forgotten.
The other is the far bigger and more important audience of Americans who aren’t paying close attention and haven’t paid close attention all year, despite one of the most interesting and unpredictable Republican nomination battles in a long time. These voters may have formed opinions about the president, but they know little about Romney.
Of the two audiences, both campaigns are far more focused on the latter than the former. The political community may set the narrative of the moment, but the voters who will be checking in over the summer are the ones who will determine who sits in the Oval Office next Jan. 20. And it is clear now just what each side wants those voters to believe.
Both campaigns have had to defend their conduct and effectiveness in these opening weeks. Obama’s campaign twice has come in for criticism because unexpected events disrupted otherwise carefully planned messages.
The day after Obama formally launched his campaign with a pair of rallies a month ago, Vice President Biden forced the conversation onto the topic of same-sex marriage. That settled down by the end of that week but only after Obama was forced to state publicly — and not on his own timetable — that he too supported same-sex marriages.
That episode coincided with consternation over the Obama campaign’s attack on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. Booker, Rendell and others decried the negative tone and, as they saw it, unfair criticism of role of private equity in the economy. The Obama campaign did not retreat. “Elites view this as gratuitous, but it’s kind of fundamental,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist.
Obama’s attacks on Romney and Bain are the opening phase of what will probably be a months-long assault aimed at undermining Romney as an acceptable alternative to the president. The president says the attacks are not an attempt to demonize private equity but only to say that Romney’s experience in private business, which has been his calling card as a candidate, doesn’t in any serious way qualify him to be president.
On Thursday, Obama advisers began a fresh attack on Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. They are quick to note that Romney is not running as an ex-governor, a job more closely associated with the role of president, but as an ex-businessman.