Last week was apparently youth week on the presidential hustings, with President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney laying out their lines of attack and appeal with young voters, ordinarily a bastion of Obama support.
But while student loan rates were the proximate issue and young voters the target, the fight neatly illustrated the approaches the two campaigns plan to use more broadly over the next few months.
Specifically at issue was the scheduled doubling of interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans for students. In 2007 Congress passed, and President Bush signed, a law that lowered the interest rates from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent—until July 1 of this year, when the rates shoot back up to 6.8 percent. While Obama wants to extend the lower interest rate, House Republicans refuse on the ground that it will cost money and, anyway, it's the Democrats' fault that interest rates are about to go up because they passed the expiring law in the first place—a line so absurd they abandoned it and caved midweek. (No word on whether the GOP will tout the expiration of the Bush tax cuts as a Republican tax increase.) The increase in the interest rates would hit roughly 7 million students, raising their costs by an average of $1,000 each. Needless to say, no rational political actor wants to embrace $1,000 price hikes for students in an election year, which is why Obama made a three swing-state college campus tour to highlight the issue, taking the occasion to remind his audience that unlike some politicians (cough, Mitt Romney, cough), he knows what it's like to deal with oppressive student loans.
Team Romney in turn embraced the youth vote push. The candidate himself deserted his severely conservative House GOP colleagues, embracing the president's position that the lower interest rates should be extended. The campaign, meanwhile, pushed the argument that Obama's policies have been bad for students, arguing that they have been responsible for rising tuition rates (which would be impressive given that the cost of college started shooting up years before Obama took office) and a poor job market. And one Romney surrogate (72-year-old former Colorado Sen. Hank Brown) told reporters that the GOP would fare better with youngsters against Obama this time because it has a "younger, more dynamic Republican candidate." That may be technically true, but the painfully square, 65-year-old Romney is, as the saying goes, an old man's idea of a young man.
We can draw a few conclusions from this skirmish. The first is that Romney's long-awaited pivot to the general election is underway (finally: Buzzfeed tallied 96 previous real or perceived Romney turns to the general election). Whereas primary campaign Romney brusquely told students not to expect government help with student loans ("The right course for America is … for us to make sure that we provide loans to the extent we possibly can at an interest rate that doesn't have the taxpayers having to subsidize people who want to go to school"), general election Romney is deeply concerned about students' ability to pay for college.
And the great pivot does not end there. Romney's campaign has been soft-pedaling its association with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a hardline anti-immigration advocate, while the former governor announced that he is studying Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio's version of the DREAM Act—a contrast with primary campaign Romney who advocated "self-deportation" and denounced the original DREAM Act as "amnesty." As if there's any doubt about the transformation taking place before our eyes, veteran conservative columnist Fred Barnes wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "According to a Romney adviser, his private view of immigration isn't as anti-immigrant as he often sounded."
Romney pivots so often it's a marvel he can put his pants on in the morning without falling down.
And those pivots also underscore the second emerging strain of the Romney strategy, what MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has called the "I'm rubber, you're glue" strategy whereby Romney goes to at times preposterous lengths to ascribe his own faults to his opponents. So he attacked Rick Santorum for being a faux conservative flip-flopper. So Romney, he of two Harvard degrees, attacks Obama for having spent too much time at Harvard. So Romney, who has embraced Paul Ryan's plan to replace Medicare with a voucher program, accuses Obama of attempting to "end Medicare as we know it." So it is Obama, in Romney's view, who has problems with women, Hispanics, and young voters. And so on.
The youth vote fight also shed light on how Obama's team plans to deal with Romney, whether to emphasize his flip-floppery or the "severely conservative" positions he took in his primary fights. Judging by its television ads thus far, and according to recent reports, the Obama campaign has decided to lash Romney to his primary campaign, Tea Party-oriented positions. "The decision here is that if you are going to pin the tail on the donkey," one anonymous Democratic strategist told Politico last week, "let's make it a conservative tail."
At the same time, however, there's no reason that when Romney tries to Etch A Sketch away his old positions, they can't nail him. "I don't think that their nominee is going to be able to suddenly say, 'Everything I've said for the last six months, I didn't mean,' " Obama told Rolling Stone. "I'm assuming that he meant it. When you're running for president, people are paying attention to what you're saying."
Romney seems to think otherwise. He may be in for quite a surprise.
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