This was not a great week for Mitt Romney. In fact, it was awful.
Where to start? His ill-timed lambasting of President Obama’s response to an anti-Muslim hate film as disgraceful just hours before the attacks on the Egyptian and Libyan embassies? How about Sunday’s story in Politico detailing internal dissension in the campaign over the role of chief strategist Stuart Spencer – “his mercurial campaign muse”? Or maybe we should just jump ahead to Monday when Mother Jones released a video of Romney telling a room of big ticket donors that Obama supporters, indeed half of all Americans, are basically idlers and moochers.
“All right,” he said, “there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.
“These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect,” he continued. “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon, in some cases, emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what he looks like.
Pot Calls Kettle Black
Campaign fact checkers were quick to point out Romney seemed to be conflating Obama’s approval rating in the polls with a Tax Policy Center study last year showing 47 percent of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes. But they also filled in a few missing details from the study: 44 percent of those non-taxpayers are elderly living off Social Security and Medicare; 30 percent have had their tax liability reduced by credits for children and the working poor that both Republicans and Democrats support; and a majority of the rest paid a higher percentage of their income in payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security (as much as 16 percent) than Romney paid on the $23 million a year (13.6 percent) he reported on the only tax return he has released to date.
Romney’s remarks to a crowd that paid up to $50,000 to hear him played right into Obama’s hands. The video not only reinforces the idea Romney is an out-of-touch plutocrat but insults the very blue-collar voters he needs to win in November. And Romney’s delusions about how he will win this race didn’t stop there. If he can’t win voters over with his tax cutting plans, he told the donors he’ll get their vote through emotion, or “whether they like the guy or not”––not a strong argument coming from a candidate who has been running 20 points behind Obama in the “likeability” category all year.
Thurston Howell Romney
Before the Mother Jones video went viral, Romney aides were promising Monday morning he would launch a new offensive this week to give voters a clearer picture of where he would take the country. Tuesday morning, all anybody wanted to talk about was David Brooks’ column in the New York Times titled “Thurston Howell Romney”:
Romney’s talk, Brooks wrote, “suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?”
“It suggests that Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America,” he went on, adding that it shows “he has lost any sense of the social compact” and “knows nothing about ambition and motivation.”
“Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people . . . But, as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney,” Brooks concluded. “Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?”
Karl Rove Unfazed
By Wednesday, there was one Republican who professed to be unfazed by Romney’s remarks. While other Republicans––Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Linda McMahon in Connecticut and incumbent Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada––were jumping off the Romney bandwagon like rats off a burning wharf, Karl Rove wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal calling the reaction to Romney “a classic example of the commentariat investing moments with more meaning than they deserve.”
Rove’s advice to Romney is stay the course. This too shall pass. Soon enough, a Democratic embarassment will make it Obama’s turn in the barrel, Rove predicts, and Romney should prepare to counter-punch when it happens.
Creating the Donut
Rove needs to remain optimistic because he is the behind the scenes architect of the Republican strategy to take over the White House this year. As head of the American Crossroads Super PAC, he has invested some $300 million over the summer holding the door open for Romney’s fall campaign. Up until the Republican convention, Romney himself was limited in the funds he could spend on political advertising. But American Crossroads (and its affiliated Super PAC’s) flooded the key swing states with anti-Obama ads.
In a lagging economy, Rove’s advertising opened a donut sized hole in the President’s rank of supporters. Going into the conventions, the percentage of Americans who believe we are on the wrong track was growing, Obama’s favorability ratings were down, and there were signs of movement away from Obama among white men (never an Obama stronghold), young voters and seniors, particularly in Florida, a critical swing state. The horse race numbers in the summer polling showed a dead heat, but Rove saw opportunity in the internal dynamics, if Romney could exploit it.
No Convention Bounce
The first sign that the Romney campaign could not capitalize on the opportunity came during the Republican convention. Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan all but levitated the Tampa Bay Times Forum with a partisan (if not always accurate) attack on the President. Romney’s speech the next night, by comparison, was vague, cliché-ridden and uninspiring. This was in no small part because, as Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen reported in Politico, his campaign guru Stuart Spencer took the speechwriting task away from Ryan’s wordsmiths and did it himself, with Romney’s input.
Spencer’s strategy through the primaries and right up to the conventions has been to keep all options available to Romney. His candidate has offered no bold solutions to America’s problems, but instead, Spencer has been content to let the sour economy bring voters around to Romney as a businessman with the creds to “fix” the economic problems.
After a Democratic convention that succeeded in so many ways the Republicans did not, President Obama got a seven-point bump in the daily Gallup polls. Romney got none. And the Romney campaign decided it was time to shake the etch-a-sketch.
Meet the Press, But Say Nothing
With only 60 days left until Election Day, campaign aides booked Romney for a rare Meet The Press appearance on September 9, and Joe Klein, the veteran Time columnist, was waiting for him.
For months, as far back as the primaries, Romney had promised to repeal Obamacare “on day one.” On Meet the Press, however, he suddenly announced that he wouldn’t repeal all of it. He said he would keep the most popular elements––like covering all comers, even those with pre-existing conditions––but skipped past the fact it was the unpopular element––the universal mandate––that made it feasible.
“Let us leave aside for a moment the well known fact that Obamacare is, at its core, Romneycare taken national,” Klein wrote in a column that appeared, yes, this week. “What annoyed me was that, for the umpteen-hundredth time in this campaign, Romney was playing dumb on a subject he knew extremely well.”
“It’s hard to be effective when you’re biting your tongue and swallowing your pride at the same time, “ he concluded. “His has been a shameful, shameless campaign. The public will occasionally turn out an incumbent President, but only when offered a real alternative. Mitt Romney has offered them only a mirage.”
A Long Weekend
Klein wasn’t the only journalist put off by Romney’s vagueness. My Businessweek arrived the same day as Time. In it was another analysis of the Meet the Press appearance by Joshua Green. It was titled “Mitt Romney and the Fantasy Budget,” and it took Romney to task for not saying what loopholes he would close to pay for his tax cuts.
“If elected president, Mitt Romney has promised he will create 12 million jobs, replace Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, slash corporate tax rates, preserve the Bush income tax cuts, and then cut an additional 20 percent to boot. And, oh yes––balance the budget. How does Romney propose to pull off this feat of budgetary magic? He isn’t saying . . . Absent details, he’s essentially selling a fantasy that depends on voters’ faith that he’ll be above to keep all these vows once elected.”
The Shape Shifter
Romney is back on the campaign trail acting as if the moochers video never happened. (That’s so 48 hours ago.) But it is the old shape-shifting Romney, bending his positions to find a few more voters in the soft core of Obama’s support. Wednesday night, at a forum at the University of Miami televised nationally by Univision, the largest Spanish-language broadcaster in the country, he skinned back oft-quoted proposal in the primaries to have illegal aliens “self-deport.”
“I’m not in favor of a deportation, mass deportation effort, rounding up 12 million people and taking them out of the country,” he said. “I believe people make their own choices as to whether they want to go home and that’s what I mean by self deportation, people decide if they want to go back to the country of their origin and get in line legally to be able to come to this country.”
The Donut and The Hole
All the money Karl Rove can raise and all the political advertising that the TV stations can carry have given Republicans an unprecedented opportunity to unseat a sitting president and take control of both the House and Senate. But Romney has proven a poor leader for the cause. His image is blurry at best, and not improved by his decision to hide his own tax returns, to speak one way to rich donors and another to voters, to soften beliefs he once held fast, and to be whatever his political consultants tell him to be––because he really, really wants to win.
So the Republican challenge this November isn’t just finding voters in every corner of the donut. It’s figuring out how to hide the hole in the middle.