PLANK SEPTEMBER 17, 2012
With its usual impatience, Politico has already published a post-mortem on Romney’s 2012 defeat. I’m as eager as anyone else to get to the end of this tale, but aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? There are seven weeks until Election Day, and in the 21st century news environment that’s an eternity. Still, I think I got why Politico was finding it so hard to wait when I read that the Romney campaign had decided to shift its focus from “the economy, stupid” to that old empty-calories standby, “status quo vs. change.” For Romney to conclude that he can’t win this election on the truly crummy state of the economy does sound like an astonishing admission of ... defeat. According to Politico, “ads and speeches will focus on a wider array of issues, including foreign policy, the threat from China, debt and the tone in Washington.” It quotes campaign factotum Stuart Stevens saying: “Can we do better on every front?” Stevens is referring not to the Romney campaign itself, but to the Obama incumbency. Good luck with that.
Paradoxically, Stevens tells Politico that making this shift to a more bullshit-laden strategy will free Romney to talk more about policy prescriptions, including those relating to the economy. But Romney’s new ad, “The Romney Plan For A Stronger Middle Class,” doesn’t do that. Instead, Romney pledges to “crack down on [trade] cheaters like China,” says we’ve “gotta balance the budget,” and promises to “champion small business.” Is this Mitt Romney in 2012, or Dick Gephardt in 1988? Romney continues to avoid volunteering any discussion of his tax cuts (which make a mockery of his budget-balancing). As I’ve said before, Republican silence on tax-cutting is terra incognita, and may signal the welcome end of an era in the annals of political pandering. I can’t resist adding a note of personal rue: If Romney really is done talking about the economy, then why did I just publish a TRB column explaining precisely how President Romney would wreck it? (Maybe de-emphasizing the economy is Stevens’ attempt to discourage people like me from explaining how truly disastrous Romney’s economic policies are. So my new column is an act of strategic defiance. Yeah, that’s the ticket!) Note, as you watch the Romney ad, that the candidate looks like he hasn’t slept in a week.
Politico’s “Who Killed The Romney Campaign?” takeout lays the blame mostly at Stevens’ feet. He’s doing too much by playing the role of chief speechwriter, chief ad maker, and chief strategist. He’s disliked inside the campaign. He’s not conservative enough. He’s too loosey-goosey. He’s too cautious. He had a stupid idea to put Romney on the old Chicago-to-Los Angeles Route 66, which would only have served to make Romney look more like a creature of the 1950s. He had a stupid idea to make Tim Pawlenty Romney’s running mate. (Actually, that idea doesn’t sound at all stupid to me.) The only favorable quotes about Stevens come from Russ Schriefer, who in addition to being Stevens’ partner happens to be an incredibly nice guy.
My former Slate colleague David Weigel points out that I predicted in late August that speechwriter Matthew Scully would be trashing Romney staffers before long, because he has a history of doing that sort of thing, and that Stevens seemed an especially likely target. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the Stevens anecdotes is about him tossing out Peter Wehner’s convention speech for Romney, giving the assignment to Scully and John McConnell, and then tossing most of that speech out, too, in favor of his own draft, which stupidly omitted any mention of Afghanistan or the troops. But I will say in Scully’s defense that a.) I’m not aware of him previously trashing his comrades before Election Day; and b.) the Politico piece appears to have multiple sources.
My own view is that chief blame for the lame performance of Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign would have to lie with the Mittster himself. He is, bless him, a uniquely godawful candidate, and I’m starting to develop some affection for him. He’s like a maladroit TV sitcom dad, practically guaranteed to say the wrong thing at the wrong moment. He means well enough, but his cluelessness and his ill-disguised opportunism get him in trouble every time. Indeed, two and a half years ago I figured his disastrous handling of the health care issue would be enough to keep him from ever getting the GOP nomination. (I didn’t think hard enough about who the competition might be.) Still, Romney’s got a few weeks, two joblessness reports, and three October debates to pull himself together, so I wouldn’t count him out just yet.