Democrats remember Michael Dukakis complaining about the Willie Horton ads, or John Kerry indignant about the swift boaters. Each called out the other campaign for going too far, and each pleaded for more civility. The result: Dukakis and Kerry were both seen as weak and whiney. The attacks against them, whether fair or not, worked.
The Democrats learned the lesson. In politics you do not want to be the one whining about the tactics the other side uses, you want to be the one using those tactics. When the other side hits you unfairly, you don’t just complain, you punch back.
Take the recent flap about President Obama supposedly saying “you didn’t do that” about successful business owners. Romney’s team jumped on that with a vengeance, snipping the sound bite to change the President’s meaning. A lesser President might go out and say “they’re being unfair, they’re taking my words out of context.” Instead, Obama and his campaign let pundits analyze. They also hit back with ads attacking Romney’s tax plan and philosophy of government.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is clearly rattled by the constant pressure to release his taxes and explain the tactics used by Bain Capital when he was at the helm. He doesn’t want to talk about those things, he wants to talk about the economy. More specifically, he wants to talk about how Obama hasn’t fixed the economy, and how he should be given a shot given his pragmatic business experience.
But his record? His personal affairs? Off limits. The election should be about whether or not we’re satisfied with President Obama. He went public to say he wants a truce, he wants only talk about the issues, not about personal affairs, his business career or his taxes. Romney entered Dukakis territory, whining that the other campaign was being too personal.
What Team Obama realizes — just as Atwater did for George H.W. Bush back in 1988 — is that Americans don’t elect a list of policy positions. Americans elect a man (or hopefully someday soon a woman) to lead the country. They will vote for someone whose positions they don’t agree with if they trust the leader. In 1984 poll after poll showed that Americans sided with Walter Mondale on the issues. Yet Ronald Reagan won in a landslide. Romney pleading to be left alone feeds into the “wimp” meme and creates that sense that he is secretive and probably disingenuous.
Lest one feel any sympathy for Romney, he was equally ruthless in dispensing with Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Herman Cain in the GOP primaries. He spent massive amounts of money on extremely negative campaigns to demolish his opposition. When they whined (or in the case of Gingrich, screeched and howled), Romney and his team showed no remorse. This is hardball politics.
That’s what makes their incompetence in handling team Obama so far all the more hard to fathom. They are no less ruthless than Obama — indeed, their attacks and rhetoric against the President are just as intense.
Having mowed over a weak set of Republican opponents, they bought their own wishful thinking that Obama would be easy to defeat due to the economy. Just as they defined Gingrich and Perry in the primaries, they sent media surrogates out to talk about how “desperate” Obama was and how his Presidency was failing. The Washington Times led this effort to emasculate Obama, with Joseph Curl winning the award for “most over the top” propagandizing. This image of Obama as a weak failure was to be contrasted with the successful and trustworthy Mitt Romney: He can fix what Obama could not.
On paper it sounds good – assuming Obama would be like Gingrich and Perry, unable to mount a strong counter offensive. But not only could Obama hit back with Bain and tax attacks (which Romney should have expected) but the Supreme Court health care ruling undercut the GOP claim that Obama had pushed an unconstitutional plan on America. He looked strong, like a winner.
On top of that, Romney had hoped to stay vague. Yet every time he veered a bit to the center the right wing was on his case. He became trapped by his base, unable to stray far from his primary red meat rhetoric. This allowed a dual narrative to emerge – Romney is a dangerous elitist who cares for the rich more than the middle class and would embrace a radical right wing agenda…OR…Romney is a flip flopper who will change positions if it helps him win. Either narrative is unflattering.
The only way for Romney to overcome that is to become a strong candidate. He has to go out and convince the American people he’s sincere, principled and trustworthy. But gaffe after gaffe, talks where he sounds robotic and out of touch, and a thin skin when criticized, make him seem small and even whiney. Again, Romney joins his fellow former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in that territory. If the economy was purring nicely Obama would be in a commanding lead. As it is, a weak economy keeps Romney in the race.
Can he overcome these problems? Picking Paul Ryan was probably the best Veep move he could have made, but it alone won’t change the campaign. If Romney is to have a chance his campaign team needs to completely retool their strategy and show that they are ready for the big leagues. They have time to do this, and Team Obama could still stumble. Most importantly, Mitt Romney has to find a way to connect with the American people. He needs to convince the public that he has what it takes to lead. He can’t hide behind advertising and vanilla bland rhetoric. He can’t count on votes simply going against Obama. He has to become a stronger candidate.
Can he? I don’t know. Dukakis and Kerry couldn’t turn things around after they looked weak early in the campaign. Early mistakes are hard to overcome (Dean’s scream, or way back to Muskie’s tears, looking even at primary season). And ultimately a person can’t become something he is not; Romney just isn’t a natural politician. So my guess is he can’t – Team Obama is just too good at campaigning, and Romney isn’t charismatic or especially engaging.
But it’s a campaign – and in campaigns anything can happen.