Writing for Commentary on the day of Rick Santorum’s sweep of GOP primaries in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota, Jonathan Tobin said that going negative on Santorum would be “a mistake.” According to Tobin,
“Going negative on Gingrich merely reinforced the public’s doubts of the speaker’s character and record. To try and do the same thing against a candidate who has come across as the nicest guy left in the race might boomerang on Romney…
But if he [Romney] tries the same tactic to take down Santorum, the blowback might do more damage to Romney than his intended victim. The spectacle of the frontrunner trying to demolish the character of another conservative rival may not go down well with the GOP grass roots, especially because Santorum has avoided the class warfare and personal attacks Gingrich launched at Romney.
An assault on Santorum may actually play into his hands, because it will make Romney appear like a bully trying to pick on the one candidate who has tried to run a clean campaign. Moreover, for all of Santorum’s vulnerability on financial issues, the longer the race has gone, the more likeable the Pennsylvanian has seemed. That’s the opposite of what has happened to Gingrich.”
I don’t agree with Tobin. After all, this is a presidential election, and voters need to hear what candidates have to say about each other’s records. Besides, despite all of the talk among pundits about not enjoying attack ads, they work. If they didn’t, you can bet that candidates wouldn’t use them. Even Newt Gingrich resorted to attack ads against Romney after he promised that he would run a “positive campaign,” a campaign about “big ideas.” Newt changed his mind for a reason. Romney’s ads worked and his didn’t.
That said, I think it would be foolish for Mitt Romney to rely exclusively or even predominantly on attack ads aimed at Rick Santorum or any other candidate going forward. GOP voters have serious questions about Romney based on his record, and attack ads won’t answer them. They wonder about his commitment to conservative ideals in general and his true proclivities toward gun control, abortion, and government controlled healthcare, for instance, specifically. Some of us even wonder about his Cayman Island accounts. What were they for?
To win the hearts and minds of GOP voters, Romney needs to present his views on issues that are dear to them succinctly and convince them that he won’t betray them if he becomes president. So far, he hasn’t done that, and as a result, there remains a nagging trust gap. Until it is bridged, Romney will have a hard time closing out his opponents. Take Romneycare, for instance. Romney’s pithy stump one-liners about repealing Obamacare and his willingness to grant exemptions to everyone don’t address the fundamental questions in the minds of GOP voters. How are Romneycare and Obamacare different? What can states do that the federal government can’t do? Will he attempt to impose his will on the nation where healthcare is concerned even if the majority of us don’t like his plan?
If Romney is smart, and I think he is, then he’ll devote time and money to answer these and other questions. If he doesn’t, he may still be able to win the GOP nomination, but he’ll lose the general election to President Obama. Romney needs to bare his soul. If he can’t or won’t, then he doesn’t deserve to be president. Too much is at stake in the 2012 presidential election to risk electing a counterfeit conservative.
Neil Snyder is a chaired professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. His blog, SnyderTalk.com, is posted daily. His latest book is titled If You Voted for Obama in 2008 to Prove You’re Not a Racist, You Need to Vote for Someone Else in 2012 to Prove You’re Not an Idiot.