Ted Zorn: Mercurial Mitt playing voters for fools

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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters. Photo / AP

Has there ever been a more blatant political about-face than what we've witnessed in the past few weeks of the United States presidential election? Mitt Romney transformed the race for the White House during the first presidential debate, which he was widely considered to have "won".

He gave a strong performance, against a relatively weak one from President Obama, but the shift in political messages was the truly remarkable feature of the event. The key to Romney's success has been to present himself as "severely conservative" - to use his words - during the Republican primaries, but then as "Moderate Mitt" in the general election campaign.

Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom famously said that after the primaries were completed that the Republicans would simply shake up the Etch-a-Sketch and start over - that is, erase all those messages from the primaries and create new ones for the general election.

And sure enough, Romney and his campaign have made a concerted effort to appear more palatable to the general electorate by offering positions in apparent contradiction to those on which he campaigned in the primaries.

For example, after saying for months that he will reduce taxes by 20 per cent across the board, in the first debate he said, "I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans".

And after criticising Obama for announcing a withdrawal date for Afghanistan, he indicated in the debate that if he were president all troops would be out by the end of 2014.

Of course it's no surprise that politicians adapt their messaging for different audiences. It's also not unusual in presidential campaigns to move toward the centre as the campaign shifts from the primaries to the general election.

But it's quite a different matter to dramatically change actual positions or principles - as opposed to the arguments and language used to support them. It seems to me that the strategy is premised on two assumptions: that staunch supporters will understand that this is all done with a wink and a nod; and most people really haven't been paying close attention until now.

Assuming that your supporters accept the fact that you are just saying what you need to say to win is cynical. But it's the second point that is of deepest concern. The strategy at work here depends upon an uninformed electorate. It is an attempt to exploit the fact that many voters are not much concerned about politics and will only tune in, if at all, when it's very close to election time.

The effect of such a strategy is to generate cynicism by those who are engaged, as they watch a candidate "win" a debate and improve his standing by confidently espousing views that totally contradict his earlier views, and obviously exploiting the ignorance of those not paying close attention.

A healthy democracy depends on an informed and engaged electorate. If candidates can count on a significant portion of the electorate responding positively to the confident and charismatic presentation of lies and half-truths, we are in trouble.

Fortunately, the New Zealand situation is different, but we should still be concerned about the sort of manipulation that is currently occurring in the US.

Such cynical political behaviour depends on an uninformed and disengaged electorate, so for the health of our democracy we need to be vigilant and work to avoid anything remotely similar here.

Professor Ted Zorn, an expat American, is the Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Massey University's College of Business.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

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