Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 7, 2007
POLITICS: The Trouble With Mitt Romney (Part 4 of 5)
The fourth of a five-part series on why Republicans who are serious about winning the White House in 2008 are wasting our time on Mitt Romney. For background, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, my explanation of why I'm with Rudy, and my take on Mike Huckabee.
IV. Campaigning Like A Democrat
In this installment, I'd like to discuss yet another of the major problems I have with Romney: his style of campaigning, which in my view is too much like a Democrat-style campaign that often ends up insulting the intelligence of the voter - because it proceeds from the assumption that the voters are stupid.
Now, let me preface this by saying that it would be foolish, especially after 2006, to assume that Democrats are somehow congenitally unable to win elections; there's obviously a long history of highly effective Democratic campaigns. And it would be silly to pretend that Republican campaign tactics are without sin.
But I do contend that there is a distinctive style of campaign, with a number of identifiable traits, that has been adopted primarily by Democratic candidates and far fewer Republicans. It's a style that can be effective in state and local races, where there are limits to the attention span and resources of the voters and the media (consider Bob Shrum's record of success at the state level). But it has proven repeatedly to wilt under the hot glare of a national campaign that affords the media and the voters alike months of attention to a candidate's every move and utterance. Romney and his campaign team seem to illustrate too many of these distinctive traits, and that not only repels me but concerns me deeply about his viability in a national election.
A. 11th Commandment? What's That?
Although this first point isn't so much a "campaigning like a Democrat" issue as one of campaigning unduly against his fellow Republicans, it set the tone early for Romney's campaign approach: his tendency to focus his fire on his own side.
The personal attacks against me during the primary finally became so heavy that the state Republican chairman, Gaylord Parkinson, postulated what he called the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. It's a rule I followed during that campaign and have ever since.
Now, politics isn't beanbag; negative campaigning works in primary elections just as it works in general elections, and in the past month or two each of the major GOP candidates has increasingly opened both barrels on the others in the field (I'm not exactly adhering to it in this series). Still, Republicans have, since Reagan, held up what has come to be called Reagan's Eleventh Commandment as an ideal to aspire to for a few related reasons: because we don't want to see the eventual nominee made radioactive, either by suffering brutal attacks or by building a reputation for undue negativity (which the media is quick to hang on Republicans anyway - look what they did to Bush after South Carolina in 2000); because a candidate ought to be able to articulate a better rationale for running than that other Republicans are worse; and because the best test of a general election candidate's ability to throw a punch when necessary is to articulate attacks on the Democrats that can be honed for the general election (I've said repeatedly that I liked how Rudy focused early and often on attacking Hillary, before the other Republicans caught on, just as McCain did in 2000). And one of the things that got to me early on in this primary season was that Romney not only repeatedly attacked his fellow Republicans, and did so far earlier in the race than the others, but seemed focused on defining himself by attacks on his primary opponents rather than on the Democrats. Even Reagan himself wasn't safe, as Romney falsely claimed that the Gipper was once "adamantly pro-choice" as California governor a charge Mark Kilmer has dismantled in detail.
To pick one concrete example of how Romney has built his message around his primary opponents instead of a strategy that can be usefully converted to the general election, Romney has been going on and on about "sanctuary cities" that don't report illegal immigrants, and that give them government services. But as I discussed previously, Romney never said boo about the issue as governor, nothing in his record or career suggested a man who gave two hoots about the point, and it wasn't an early theme; instead, he's been pounding the issue almost entirely as a thinly-veiled (if that) attack on Rudy Giuliani's immigration policies as New York Mayor. Does anyone seriously believe that if Rudy wasn't in the race, Romney would be talking about sanctuary cities?
Meanwhile, aside from a few well-placed jabs at Barack Obama, Romney hasn't really shown a similar stomach for combat with the Left. When Democrats raised a dishonest attack on Rush Limbaugh for denouncing "phony soldiers" who fabricate tales of U.S. atrocities and falsify their own war experiences, Romney denounced Rush. Romney also piled on Gen. Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when Pace was attacked for saying that homosexuality was immoral.
B. An Instinct For The Lamest, Most Self-Defeating Attacks
Romney's taste for negativity might be forgivable if he was truly a gifted two-fisted brawler, in the way that Rudy and McCain are. Instead, his style of negative attack shows a consistent instinct to go for the capillary, endlessly repeating attacks that are lame, misguided and/or self-defeating. In particular, his assaults on his opponents' conservative bona fides tend consistently to focus on things he himself is guilty of, or on areas in which his opponent has a better story to tell than Mitt does.
As a tactic, attacking the other guy on your own weak spots can sometimes be successful, even audacious as a way to muddy the water. But like so many things, Romney - like the Kerry and Gore campaigns - mistakes a sometime tactic for a strategy and overuses it. Examples:
*This American Spectator piece collects a number of examples, including Romney attacking John McCain's record since 2000 on abortion, stem cell research and campaign finance reform even though Romney was pro-choice during much of the period in question (and didn't oppose all forms of embryonic stem cell research) and supported campaign finance reform, Romney attacking Rudy for taking essentially the same position Romney had taken on the Federal Marriage Amendment (more here on Romney and civil unions), and Romney ripping Rudy on guns while ignoring his own support for the Brady Bill.
*Romney's campaign attacked Fred for supporting ENDA, the bill to create workplace-discrimination rights for gays, in 1996. Problem one: Fred voted against it. Problem two: Romney supported the bill at the time.
*Romney attacked Rudy over Rudy's opposition to eliminating the commuter tax paid by non-NYC residents who work in NYC; the problem with this pinprick attack is that Rudy has a much stronger overall record as a tax-cutter, and Rudy - true to form - responded with a press release staging a much broader counterattack on the candidates' two records on the issue, leaving Romney looking like the guy who brought a knife to a gunfight.
*Romney sent out a flier attacking his rivals for not supporting the Human Life Amendment, ignoring Huckabee's support for the HLA (on the grounds that he was not a "major" candidate), ignoring Fred's issuance of a statement clarifying that he supports the HLA, and ignoring that Mitt himself was not supporting the HLA as recently as March 2007 (more here, on Romney's supporters misrepresenting this position), instead stressing the federalist aspects of his approach. (More here). None of Mitt's positions were inherently problematic in themselves, but the incoherence of this attack as a whole was staggering.
*Romney's camp took shots at Sam Brownback, probably the living Republican officeholder most prominently associated with the pro-life movement, on the theory that Brownback hadn't always been pro-life (and on fairly flimsy evidence, to boot); this from a man who snapped at one early debate that "I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have."
*Romney's camp walked into a buzzsaw when Romney supporter Paul Weyrich accused the National Right to Life Committee of having been essentially financially bought off by Fred Thompson, drawing this stinging rebuke from Fred:
Gov. Romney is new to the pro-life movement and his campaign clearly has a few things to learn about it. First, they should understand that despite their campaign's every effort, groups like the National Right to Life Committee's PAC (NRLC-PAC) cannot be bought. . . It is unseemly for the Romney campaign and its supporters to suggest that NRLC-PAC's coveted endorsement is based on a bribe. Second, this unfounded accusation is as outrageous as it is ironic, given the Romney campaign's long history of spreading money around to anyone who will take it.
*Even when Romney has attacked across the aisle, he's had trouble explaining how he can criticize Hillary Clinton's mandate-heavy HillaryCare approach when Romney's own healthcare proposals also rely on "universal coverage" mandates.
If the combination of frequent but weak attacks with a lack of a central organizing theme reminds me of anyone in the GOP, it's the ill-fated 2000 Senate campaign of Rick Lazio, who launched lots of increasingly lame attacks on Hillary Clinton, many of them about campaign process issues. Lazio was, like Romney, a pleasant, clean-cut guy, and Hillary cleaned him like a fish. To go toe-to-toe with the Clinton machine, you need to know how to land punches, not just throw them wildly.
C. An Overly Reactive Approach
Even hyper-partisan Democrat Josh Marshall has noted the tendency of Democratic campaigns to panic and shift their approach at each day's news cycle, a tendency I consider emblematic of deeper problems with their steadiness as leaders and one that's consistent with the inability to distinguish tactics from strategy.
Now, as it happens, Mitt has not been as guilty of this as many Democratic campaigns; he hasn't repeatedly fired his staff, we haven't been treated to repeated interviews by staffers telling us that we are finally going to see the real Mitt Romney, etc. But Jay Cost, I think, hits the nail on the head as to why Romney's lack of a central defining theme and overreliance on negative attacks has led to constant shifts in Romney's message:
His candidacy has been the most transparently strategic this cycle. McCain is up? Go after McCain. McCain is down? Leave McCain alone. Thompson enters the race and seems a threat? Take a cheap shot about Law and Order. Thompson fades? Ignore him. Rudy is up? Go after Rudy. Huckabee is up? Go after Huck. You need to win a Republican primary? Make yourself the most socially conservative candidate in the race. And on and on and on.
That's a problem, and like many of the problems noted above, it will manifest itself in new ways in the general election. A campaign needs consistent and coherent messages of its own, or voters will see its aggressiveness as the steak, not the sizzle.
D. Whining and Identity Politics
Another of the famous failures of the national Democrats in recent years has been the overreliance on identity politics/biography as a substitute for defending their positions on the merits. As I said after Kerry lost what may well - we will never know for sure - have been a winnable campaign (certainly 2000 was winnable for Gore):
[A]ll candidates use their biography when possible to shore up both the strong and weak points in their images. But what we've seen increasingly from Democrats is efforts to use biography as a shield to cover the candidate's policy positions. Get asked about gun control? Don't talk about the issue - go hunting! Get asked about war? Talk about your service record!
I discussed in the last installment, Romney's ridiculous and wholly Kerry-esque effort to deflect questions about his past gun control positions by exaggerating his (nearly non-existent) record as a hunter bought lock, stock and barrel into this approach, and led him into precisely the same ditch: reporters flayed him for his exaggerations, NRA voters weren't fooled about his record, and in time Mike Huckabee was given a golden opportunity to steal a march to Romney's right by talking passionately about his own genuine background as a hunter from a rural state. The worst thing is, because this was one of the precise issues that had tripped up Kerry and Gore, Romney should have seen it coming a mile away; somehow, he didn't.
A related issue is the Romney camp's recent and wildly unsuccessful effort to cast Romney as the victim of religious bigotry by competing campaigns. Mitt's response to the now-infamous "push poll" about his faith is yet another example of a Democrat-style approach leading to a fiasco. Democrats, of course, love to complain about "below the radar" things like push polls that are hard to prove or disprove and impossible to trace; the whining charge of dirty or racist politics, whether or not true, can stick, but can also blow up in the attacker's face.
Romney's camp did two things: they rushed to attack Romney's rivals over the poll (in fact, the 'voters' who they produced complaining that they had received the poll calls were local Iowa Romney campaign staffers - not the first time Romney's camp has sent paid staffers to talk to the media as if they were disinterested bystanders), and they did so without knowing who was behind it. When connections turned up to people with ties to the Romney camp, all of a sudden Romney had to fight off the charge that his people were complaining about a hit job from their own camp. True, the evidence connecting the poll to Romney's people was far from conclusive and at least some of it dissolved on closer inspection - we still don't really know where the poll came from - but that's not the point. The point is that Romney's people, by making a big issue of the poll, set themselves up to be damaged by revelations beyond their control, and over the pettiest of issues.
E. Candidate in a Can
Yet another of the unappealing traits that Romney has in common with recent Democratic candidates - and again, he's not as bad at this as Kerry or Gore or Hillary, but it does concern me - is an overly-programmed approach that makes him sound...well, as Jeff Emanuel puts it,
[I]t's as if the powers that be simply reached into the fridge, grabbed a can of "generic candidate, one each, no sugar or flavor added" and popped the top. . . . I'm still waiting for the day when my first reaction to any speech, statement, quip, quote, joke, laugh, or chuckle on the stage or the stump is not "Wow, I wonder how many times he rehearsed that one."
Thomas linked to this video back in August - go to about 9:20 in the video, and especially a minute later when they go off the air, and watch Romney discuss the subject that he's been grappling with again this week, religion in public life:
On the one hand, this glimpse into a fiesty, combative, unscripted Romney looks and sounds like a much better candidate than the one we have seen in the debates, and often on the stump - not canned at all, in a way that makes you wish (just as Gore's and Kerry's supporters often publicly wished) that this guy would just try being himself. On the other hand . . . well, as Thomas pointed out, you just have to wonder if this is Al Gore all over again - just as Gore's father's political career ended when he got too far to the left of his voters, leading Al to spend years trying to be someone he wasn't (only the traumatic defeat in 2000 finally freed Gore to be himself), Mitt's father was destroyed politically and branded in the history books by a gaffe, a poor word choice in an interview. Combine that with (1) his efforts to run as a moderate-to-liberal Republican in Massachusetts, (2) his efforts to run as a conservative in the primaries and (3) the way Romney stresses the distinctions between his faith and the public sphere and you have to wonder whether this is a guy who has spent so many years staying on script and separating his political positions from what he may or may not actually believe that he is just unable to be a credible advocate for any set of ideas, because he always seems to be selling something.
The canned-candidate approach might also be understandable if Romney actually was a strikingly mistake-proof candidate on the trail. But if anything, and unsurprisingly given his relative political inexperience, he's had at least as many blunders as anybody in the GOP field. As Jay Cost put it, "[i]f somebody asked me which candidate on the Republican side has won just a single election (in a year that his party did very well nationwide) -- I would answer Mitt Romney, even knowing nothing about anybody's biography."
Probably the worst example of Romney just putting his foot in his mouth was his answer to questions about his sons choosing not to join the military, in which Romney tried to equate their service for his campaign to service of the nation at war. (A particularly odd statement given that Mitt himself was in France while his own dad was running for President). Of course, the question is an obnoxious one, but Romney could scarcely have picked a worse way to handle it. We also had the "Battlefield Earth" wierdness (Jim Geraghty discusses that and some other bizarre stuff here). Ana Marie Cox collected a "top 11" Romney gaffes, and while several of these are silly (unsurprisingly, given the source), others are further proof that Romney hasn't prevented himself from stumbling. Romney's had other amateur-hour productions ranging from overhyped endorsements that got retracted, to using images in ads without permission, to some of the odd people around his campaign, to the recent and largely poorly handled flap about Romney's landscapers. As I said, none of this is all that remarkable in itself, but it goes to show that what Romney has lost in authenticity, he hasn't necessarily made up for in reducing his vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the trail.
Like I've said from the beginning: if we nominate him, we will lose.
Coming in Part V - and don't get ahead of me, I'll deal with it then - the question of Romney's faith, and a wrapup.