Mitt Romney's 'boomerang' attack strategy: Is it effective?

Repeatedly, we’ve seen the Obama campaign launch an attack, only to find the exact same accusation hurled back at them by Mitt Romney's folks. 'Outsourcer in chief' is a recent example.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures during remarks to volunteers working at the Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado to distribute food to those affected by the wildfire on Tuesday, July 10, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Reporters who cover presidential campaigns often complain that it can become like “Groundhog Day,” listening to the candidates give the same speeches and recycle the same attack lines day after day.

But this year, the campaign feels more like “Trading Places” – or perhaps “Boomerang.”

Repeatedly, we’ve seen the Obama campaign launch an attack, only to find the exact same accusation hurled right back at them by the Romney folks. Multiple pundits on the left have dubbed it the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” approach, as it has become a predictable pattern in Campaign 2012.

Remember the Democratic charge that Republicans were waging a “war on women”? On Wednesday, American Crossroads, a GOP super PAC, has a new ad out accusing President Obama of waging a war on women “in our economy.”

Likewise, both sides have traded accusations over “flip-flopping” and being “out of touch.”

Perhaps the biggest boomerang to date came this week on outsourcing. For weeks, the Obama campaign has been hammering Mitt Romney for allegedly investing in companies that shipped jobs overseas during his tenure at Bain Capital. A hard-hitting attack ad asked if Americans really want “an outsourcer in chief in the White House.” Although Mr. Romney has denied the charges – and the independent group FactCheck.org found them to be “thinly supported” – the attacks seem to have had an impact, with Romney’s poll numbers weakening in swing states where the ads have been running. 

So Romney turned the tables, accusing Mr. Obama on the trail this week of being the “outsourcer in chief.”

The Republican National Committee followed up with a website called “Obamanomics Outsourced: the Truth About How Obama Shipped the Recovery Overseas,” which lists stimulus funds that it claims wound up being spent outside the United States, on everything from LED lights to electric cars.

Many of these same accusations were used in an attack ad last spring by Americans for Prosperity, another GOP super PAC – and they were also debunked by FactCheck.org.

But the Romney campaign – like Obama – doesn’t need the charges to be fully validated (as The New York Times put it, “the two candidates and their allies have all but stuck their fingers in their ears while continuing with their outsourcing attacks”). Frankly, the Romney folks don’t even need the public to buy into the argument that Obama is the one who’s really guilty of outsourcing. They just need their counterattack to get enough attention – to enter into enough of the “outsourcing” discussion – that it effectively defuses the original attack. The ultimate goal is for the whole back-and-forth to become more political white noise that the public eventually just tunes out.

It's not a bad strategy, so far as it goes. The danger, however, is that it keeps Romney in a mostly defensive posture. Even if the counterattacks wind up having an impact, they’re still allowing the Obama campaign to drive the discussion. They’re reacting, instead of forcing the other side to react.

The Obama campaign’s main goal right now is to “define” Romney, and while Romney may have found an effective way to push back at some of the charges with his boomerang approach, he’s still not doing much to effectively define himself. That could prove a crucial lost opportunity.

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