Flip-floppin’ Away: The Parallel Perils of Peres 1984 and Romney 2012

A well-executed campaign of scorn and ridicule can demolish even the most promising politician’s electoral hopes.

You probably haven’t heard of Yosef (Sefi) Rivlin, the 65-year-old actor and comedian who almost singlehandedly changed the course of Israeli history, not once but twice. By poking devastating fun at then Labor Party leader Shimon Peres’ change of heart on several central issues of the day, Rivlin undermined both Peres’ public persona and Labor’s chances of winning the 1981 and 1984 Israeli elections.

In televised campaign spots etched in Israel’s collective memory as “Shimon Peres, Ken Velo (Yes and No)” the right-leaning Rivlin cruelly mimicked Peres answering “yes” and “no” to a series of questions ranging from the serious to the ridiculous, from the construction of new settlements to the sugar in his tea.

Despite the economic recession and widespread disillusionment with the Likud leadership in both elections, Peres lost the 1981 elections to Menachem Begin and only barely achieved parity with the lackluster Yitzhak Shamir in 1984. In both cases, most analysts agree, Rivlin’s effective deflation of Peres’ public image may have moved just enough votes to make all the difference in the world.

“Flip-flops are important when they reinforce a larger narrative about a candidate’s negative attribute,” according to Kevin Madden, a top aide to Romney during the 2008 presidential campaign, as he was then quoted in the New York Times.

Peres the politician was saddled with such a  “larger narrative” by virtue of his long decades in politics, his metamorphosis from a 1970’s hawk to a 1980’s dove, and, lest we forget, his lethal depiction by the late Yitzhak Rabin in his 1979 autobiography as an “indefatigable conniver”.

Mitt Romney is similarly burdened by the “larger narrative” that his former adviser referred to, for his travels within a short decade from the liberal politics of Massachusetts, where he declared himself “a moderate with progressive views” to the current Republican Party in which he felt it necessary to declare his “severe” conservative credentials.

In fact, Romney’s wide-ranging change of policies from left to right on issues such as taxes, abortions and gun control were already being used against him successfully in the 2008 Republican campaign.  In one televised debate, McCain said pointedly, “I haven’t changed my positions because of different offices I may be running for,” and in another he looked directly at Romney and said with faux admiration “I agree. You ARE the candidate of change," and the audience burst out laughing.

As could clearly be seen in recent days in his tax-is-penalty-is-tax contortions regarding the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare - Romney is struggling to come up with a coherent strategy that will not only keep his ideological base at bay but also deprive the Democrats of valuable fodder for their upcoming campaign.

Romney’s problem, of course, is that he was governor of Massachusetts only recently, when the Internet and news networks were already busy 24/7 recording everything and anything that spoke or moved, so that for far too many policy statements that Romney makes on the 2012 campaign trail, his opponents can produce a video clip from yesteryear in which he says exactly the opposite.

Further complicating Romney’s predicament is his own form of “double jeopardy”:  While continuing to placate his restless “ideological base” he must also shed some of the excess conservatism he put on during the Republican primaries in order to now appeal to more centrist and moderate voters.

Romney’s anguish was painfully evident in his acrobatic appearance before the Latino Coalition last month, in which he tried to “walk with, but feel without” - as a legendary Israeli bra commercial once put it, to wit - to try to win over Hispanic voters without reneging on any of his previous statements which so infuriated them.

Voters, generally speaking, have low expectations of most politicians and have therefore developed a high level of tolerance for a fair amount of ideological flexibility, turnarounds and about-faces.

The clear and present danger for Romney, as it was for John Kerry in the 2004 campaign, as it was for Peres in 1981 and 1984, is that their reputation for zigzagging or flip-flopping or “kenvelo-ing”, as we might say in Israel, will cross a red line, reach a critical mass and henceforth be permanently embedded in the way the public perceives them.  

From there, the road to the sort of general scorn and ridicule that can destroy a campaign will be short, especially in Romney’s case, if the Democrats find the right type of Rivlin-like comedian to make it all seem so completely ridiculous and absolutely hilarious.

It goes without saying that a candidate who is not taken seriously by independent “floating” voters will have a hard time getting elected, either as prime minister of Israel or as president of the United States. As Satan noted in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”

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