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2012 Election

The Weakness and Strength of Mitt Romney

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Presidential politics are never very enlightening, but Mitt Romney’s campaign is setting new lows for confusion, errors and missed opportunities. Some of these are staff errors, unavoidable in a campaign which has been grinding on for over a year now; others are missteps by the candidate himself. The worst, though, are the gaffes which display the inherent weakness of Mitt Romney as Presidential material.

 

 

Whatever the causes, the result is that Mitt Romney’s foot seems to be planted more often in his mouth than on the President’s backside. Some of his wealthy supporters are starting to realize this and despair. Worst of all for America, Mr. Romney is focusing on the Republican Party line, rather than highlighting his significant bipartisan accomplishments in Massachusetts. The campaign and the electorate are the worse for it.

Missed Opportunities

The Romney campaign has missed several opportunities to make political capital out of President Obama’s own initiatives.

Earlier in the year, when the President failed to reach a deal with the Catholic Church over the requirement to provide medical insurance including contraceptives and birth control counseling, the Republicans salivated over the prospect of painting the President as a godless socialist intent on crushing freedom of religion in his haste to impose Obamacare. Mr. Romney, perhaps sensitive to his own “weakness”[1] in the area of religious belief, seemed content to let the matter pass with the barest minimum condemnation.[2]

The Democrats, meanwhile, made much of Republican hostility to women’s rights. Mr. Romney was presented with a golden opportunity to strike back when a Democratic strategist (!) unattached to the Obama campaign, Hilary Rosen[3], attacked the governor’s wife on the grounds that she had never worked a day in her life. This maladroit thrust against Romney the Rich only succeeded in showing Mrs. Romney in her best light and undermining Democrats in the eyes of traditional moms, of which there are still millions. Yet after getting some mileage for a few weeks on the issue, Mr. Romney inexplicably ceded the battlefield to the Democrats. Given the size and importance of the female demographic, and of Mr. Romney’s war chest, his decision is hard to understand. Female voters continue to break heavily towards Mr. Obama.

Democrats were handed an important victory in July by the Supreme Court, when Chief Justice Roberts sided with the 4 liberal justices to endorse the constitutionality of President Obama’s landmark domestic achievement. But the chalice was poisoned: Justice Roberts permitted the individual mandate on the basis that it was a tax. Though less satisfying to Republicans than an outright repeal, the ruling opened the door to more attacks on the President’s tax policy.

Inexplicably – and to great consternation from supporters – the Romney Campaign initially refused to agree with the Chief Justice and continued to call the mandate a penalty, rather than a tax. So direct a contradiction to the Supreme Court and to the GOP’s official stance raised many eyebrows in both camps. The situation was not improved by Mr. Romney’s flip-flop a few days later as he fell in line with his party’s version.

Bigmouth Strikes Again

The governor of Massachusetts is not being helped by his Republican cohorts.

John Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire, has been lamenting in public that President Obama should “learn to be an American[4]”. Mr. Sununu, who was born in Cuba of Palestinian and Greek descent, obviously took lots of US civics lessons at MIT, since he was so free with his lessons for the President. After being roasted by the Obama campaign, press and much of the public, he quickly apologized and claimed that his words had been misrepresented.

Less apologetic is Michele Bachmann. Last month she accused a State Department employee and former aide to Hilary Clinton, Huma Abedin, of openly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood from within the government. Blatantly echoing Senator McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee, and no doubt sharing his craving for media publicity, Mrs. Bachmann sank to a new low of reprobation and vileness, which is difficult to believe given her history of past declarations.

Amidst the squalor, Senator McCain came to the defense of the beleaguered Abedin. Showing himself to be a man of honor and principle, a McCain that was strangely and unfortunately absent in 2008, the Senator from Arizona defended Mrs. Abedin resolutely against her conservative attackers, calling the attacks “sinister” and insisting they stop immediately.[5]

 

Inherent Weakness

A gaffe or two can always be expected, explained away as mere vagaries of a long, hard campaign. These are seldom of lasting consequence, though there have been notable exceptions: most voters old enough to remember the 1992 election gave then President HW Bush major demerits for being caught on camera looking at his watch during the debates with Mssrs. Clinton and Perot. The image reinforced the Democratic message of Bush Sr. being an East Coast patrician with little sense of or patience for the common man and the President never recovered the initiative.

However, a long series of gaffes, omissions and errors is more difficult to shrug off. It could be an indication of incompetence in the Romney team, which brings into question the candidate’s own strategic thinking and managerial judgment.  This is the view of at least some of Romney’s billionaire backers, like Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted that Romney should fire his team or risk losing the election.[6] Generous advice from the media baron whose empire is crumbling due to a scandal involving widespread, illegal wiretapping and corruption of public officials in Great Britain.

An alternative analysis is that the Republican candidate is hamstrung by his own internal weaknesses, which prevent him from running a truly effective campaign. There is evidence to support this view:

  • On healthcare, candidate Romney is on very thin ice, since Governor Romney’s health care overhaul in Massachusetts (a.k.a. RomneyCare) is the putative father of ObamaCare, down to the individual mandate and all. Democrats will grill the Gov either on his support for a plan identical to the President’s or else on his “flip flopping like an Etch-A-Sketch” for withdrawing his support for electoral reasons only;

 

  • On the tax issue, even wealthy conservatives are getting nervous about their candidate’s refusal to reveal more returns. The reason? Because he really is a fabulously wealthy plutocrat with hundreds of millions in offshore accounts. Mr. Romney can either run with this and make a virtue out of his business success, or else he can continue to with the message of “understanding” the middle class, and shared family values. Both together are in jarring dissonance and probably unsustainable. Right now, candidate Romney is only succeeding in looking shifty and secretive.[7]

    Given Mr. Romney’s background, the first strategy is undoubtedly closer to reality, but given the Republican’s need to win the white, working class vote to balance Democratic strength in women, Hispanics and African Americans, it may not be an option. Yet Mitt Romney as the defender of the middle class is as fabulously unrealistic as George W Bush the classical scholar. The closest Mr. Romney has come to the middle class is his domestic cleaning staff;

 

  • Speaking of business success, Mr. Romney has been struggling to defend his tenure at Bain Capital. The Obama campaign has been aggressively attacking Mr. Romney’s record as a downsizer and outsourcer, a real-life Gordon Gekko. Of course there is some truth in this – jobs undoubtedly were lost at companies bought by Bain. Others were undoubtedly created by companies that were successfully turned around, or as resources were allocated more efficiently in the economy. But it is disingenuous of the Democrats to insinuate that Bain or Mr. Romney were responsible for sending those jobs overseas; at most, they can be accused of profiting from the economic reality which was just as much President Clinton’s policy as his predecessors’ and successor’s.

Mr. Romney has met with mixed success in touting his private sector experience, though it was supposed to be the real differentiator between himself and the President. There has been a great deal of hemming and hawing, and the bad mistake in insisting that all relations between the candidate and the company were severed in 1999 when that is patently not the case. That was a stupid, costly and avoidable mistake[8].

More to the point, however, is the fact that running a business is not remotely the same as running a government. The President is not a sort of super-CEO of the US economy. The responsibilities are utterly different, as are the goals, the organization and the processes. Some successful businessmen have made the transition to politics successfully; some have not. Ross Perot was a great businessman, but terrible candidate. Steve Jobs might have been the Prometheus of the tech world, but he would have been a terrible president.

Voting for a business “insider” runs the obvious risk of collusion and crony capitalism; precisely the charge which Mr. Romney has been levying recently on the President, and without the slightest embarrassment at accusing Mr. Obama of both crony capitalism and die-hard socialism in the same breath. It is a good strategy as it forestalls the Democrats from using that same argument against him, and with more justification. Mr. Romney’s economic and fiscal plans, what little we know of them, do seem to disproportionately favor his interests and those of his extremely wealthy peers and patrons.

Mitt’s Hidden Strengths

Both teams are wrong to focus on the time Mr. Romney spent at Bain as indicative of anything. Far more valuable is an examination of his four years as Massachusetts’ governor. So what is Governor’s Romney’s record in Massachusetts? Overall, pretty good. Mr. Romney held office from January 2003 until January 2007. In that time, he turned around the state’s finances while implementing a major healthcare and educational reform, as well as delivering on employment growth.

Let’s go to the charts:

Governor Romney inherited a state budget that was badly hit by the collapse in equities in the tech bubble of 2000 and the subsequent recession. Boston technology companies had suffered more than the country as a whole had, leading to a large shortfall in revenue. Mr. Romney benefited from an improvement in the economic picture after 2004, but his own efforts at fiscal consolidation through a mixture spending cuts, increased revenues and closure of tax loopholes were critical in cutting the 2003 deficit by two thirds[9]. This is hardly the picture of the “tax pledge” Mitt that was forced to kowtow to the Grover Norquist fanatics to secure his nomination, but rather of a moderate, centrist and pragmatic politician and manager.

 

In terms of overall economic performance[10], Governor Romney is less obviously a star. Massachusetts grew below the national average during his tenure; on the other hand, the state also suffered less than the nation during the downturn in 2007 and 2008. State governors have limited power to move GDP, especially in a single term.

 

How about job growth? At the end of the day, this is what Americans really care about, not the abstract concept of GDP, or even corporate profits, which we all know can grow fabulously, and have, without necessarily translating into higher wages or more jobs. On this metric, the Governor has a good record. Annual growth in employment[11] was less than the national average, but the rate of change in growth was significantly better. In other words, Massachusetts was lagging when Mr. Romney took office, but had caught up to the rest of the US by the time he stepped down.

 

This is a good story to tell, one that most Americans would like to hear. Why then isn’t the Romney camp banging the drums and blowing the trumpets?

No Country for Old Moderates

These successes are not being discussed for the same reason that they can’t talk about Mitt Romney’s health care or educational reform. They are too moderate. The Republican base has become so radicalized and so extremely conservative, that it forces Mr. Romney to distance himself the bipartisan and pragmatic approach he held throughout his tenure as governor of Massachusetts. Just as John McCain was forced to become a conservative parody of himself (so much for the maverick of the Senate), so too has Mitt Romney moved far to the right in order to secure the GOP nomination.

Sadly, Mr. Romney is forced to disown his own best accomplishments, because they were achieved through a true bipartisanship with the heavily Democratic legislature of Massachusetts. That message – as necessary and as valuable as it would be for the country and its vitriolic politics – would be anathema to the Republican faithful. It would make Mr. Romney almost indistinguishable from Mr. Obama: a point underscored by George Soros earlier in the year.[12]

So we are condemned to a long and banal summer of electoral mudslinging which will only get uglier and less illuminating as it drags on. It should nevertheless be a concern to the Romney team that, while outspending the Democrats 2-to-1 in battleground states, holding a substantial edge in fundraising and with the US economy re-entering the doldrums thanks to Euro jitters and a BRIC slowdown, the race is too close to call[13]. If it comes down to a personality contest, Mr. Obama has an edge and so do the Democrats, who are stilled viewed more favorably than Republicans according to the Pew Center[14]:


Sources and Notes:

[1] Disclaimer: I personally have nothing against Mr. Romney’s Mormon faith, nor do I think it should be an issue in the election. I nevertheless list it as a “weakness” because many Americans do think it has relevance and bearing on their voting decision.
[2] Rick Santorum, a practicing Catholic himself, launched the strongest attacks against the President’s policy.
[3] Kucinich, Jackie and Moore, Martha T., “Hilary Rosen say Ann Romney never worked ‘day in her life’”, USA Today, 12 April 2012
[4] Borchers, Callum, “Mitt Romney surrogate says he wishes President Obama ‘would learn how to be an American’”, Political Intelligence, 17 July 2012
[5] Leist, Libby, “McCain defends top aide to Clinton from fellow Republicans,” MSNBC, 20 July 2012
[6] Haberman, Maggie, “Murdoch hits Romney: He Needs a New Team,” Politico, 1 July 2012
[7] Murray, Mark, “First Thoughts: Romney’s Tax Return Dilemma,” MSNBC, 18 July 2012
[8] Frum, David, “Mitt Romney’s Painfully Bad Week,” CNN, 16 July 2012
[9] U.S. Census Bureau
[10] Bureau of Economic Analysis
[11] Bureau of Economic Analysis
[12] Nichols, Hans, “Soros Sits Out Obama Super-PAC Money Race Beside Big Givers,” Bloomberg News, 03 February 2012
[13] Gallup 2012 Election trial heats have the candidates tied at 46% as of 18 July 2012
[14] Pew Research Center Databank

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Discussion

One Response to “The Weakness and Strength of Mitt Romney”

  1. Thanks for your excellent and very interesting blog, Fernando

    Posted by Tom Pauly | July 23, 2012, 12:26

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