During my appearance earlier this week on a national talk radio talk show, a caller – in the context of how formidable Mitt Romney is as a candidate – argued that the test will be whether Romney criticizes Barack Obama for his pre-presidential associations and voting record. In the last few weeks, I’ve also heard from a friend who thought the president’s critics should focus attention on Obama’s association with the radical New Party (for more, see Stanley Kurtz’s fine piece here). And still others have argued with me that Obama’s failure to produce his transcripts from college ought to be a focal point of the election.
My answer in each case is this: Among the challenges in politics is to remind oneself that issues we think are of major importance aren’t always what much of the public thinks are issues of major importance. In other words, you could believe that Obama’s association with the New Party is relevant in terms of his past and current policies – but much of the public might simply disagree. A campaign has to pursue strategies that are effective — and no campaign manager worth his salt will spend valuable time fighting to convince the public they should care about an issue they don’t much care about.
There’s an argument to be made that there’s much in Obama’s past that is not only legitimate to discuss but foreshadowed his presidency. Still, that doesn’t make it a wise tactic to use in an election in which (a) the public is already quite familiar with the incumbent (the result being that revelations about his distant past won’t move the needle in terms of their views toward him) and (b) the incumbent has amassed an indefensible record on the economy, which is far and away the issue most on the minds of the voters. Independents in particular would probably be turned off by all this, judging it to be a petty distraction from the issues that are most on their minds.
To reiterate: this doesn’t make Obama’s past off-limits or irrelevant. And those who spend their life commenting on politics have every right to delve into these matters. It simply means that if Republicans running for office hope to win, they’ll align their campaign with the issues the voters consider predominant.