One of President Obama's greatest skills as an orator and politician is his ability to construct rhetorical concessions early in policy debates that help him gain victory in his own original terms. It's a talent he will most certainly bring to bear on Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the first debate this Wednesday.
In his most recent State of the Union address, for instance, the President said, "this country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy." In his May kick-off speech for his re-election campaign, Obama called the free market "one of the greatest forces for progress in human history." He described the American "free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known" in his convention address to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
An "all-of-the-above" energy plan? That used to be the Republican line. The paeans to free markets? Something you'd expect to hear from the Republican challenger, not an incumbent Democratic president. His health care reform plan? Its broad outlines, if not the details, and the arguments invoked on its behalf, all came from the Heritage Foundation and a certain Republican governor. By co-opting the language -- but not (fully) the ideas or the intentions -- of the opposition, Obama creates a valuable appearance of ceding more ground than he actually has.
He gains credibility early in arguments at his opponents' expense by casting himself as the only adult in the room, while simultaneously forcing the opposition into disarray, as Republicans are obligated to redraw the lines of battle in ways that make themselves appear more extreme.
It's a political strategy that, amid radicalization by the Tea Party, Republicans seem to have un-learned. Although many of their policy prescriptions have gone unchanged since the 1990s -- Mitt Romney's plan to cut income tax rates 20 percent echoes 1996 candidate Bob Dole's proposed 15-percent cut -- they have executed a unilateral retreat from the rhetorical center.
There are a few issues on which Republicans have lurched to the right. In the 2008 election, for example, John McCain's platform included a carbon cap-and-trade plan, which today Romney wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. On most issues, however, the Republican platform has gone unchanged, whereas the rhetoric has taken a turn to the Manichean, invoking a voice of puritanical extremism that reflects the policy views of but the slimmest sliver of the party's right wing.
It's as if they are applying the strategy which has worked for Obama, and fantastically well for Clinton before him, in reverse.
Make no rhetorical concession to your opponent, the Republican approach seems to go, so that he can paint you into an ideological corner. Behave like children, so that he can fairly characterize any cooperation with you as unproductive. When you've managed to isolate yourself totally -- that is, when you've burned every bridge leading off Right-Wing Island -- let your opponent win layup policy victories wholly uncontested. Render yourself so irrelevant to the actual policymaking process that you give your opponent the opportunity to effect the greatest expansion of government health programs since the Great Society. Make sure you have absolutely no leverage to prevent taxes from increasing this January.
After Republicans take a decisive Romney loss, a failure to capture the Senate and a net loss of seats in the House all to the chin this November, what would more moderate rhetoric sound like? Here are three examples:
Instead of talking about "job creators," tell Americans what a Republican president would do for the working poor. (There is actually a lot in Republican views on school choice and criminal justice reform.)
Instead of characterizing the "47 percent" of Americans as "dependent" and "entitled" and expecting to be taken seriously on welfare reform, laud the social safety net as the essential complement to a dynamic creative-destruction economy. Frame reforms as what's needed to keep these two fundamentals of American democracy in harmonious coexistence.
Instead of criticizing the White House's "war on coal" when it's the free market revolution in natural gas that's doing in coal, re-establish that Republicans mean it (and that Democrats don't) on an "all-of-the above" energy strategy. Paint the Democrats as obstructionists on natural gas and shale oil.
If Republicans continue to forget how to talk like moderates, they will soon forget what winning elections and making policy feels like, also. They are letting themselves be co-opted and out-maneuvered into political irrelevance.
(Evan Soltas is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)
Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.