Was it only weeks ago that, having vanquished his primary foes, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was riding high in the conventional wisdom? The Obama campaign was denounced as incompetent as the president was pronouncing that "the private sector is doing fine," while pundits marveled at how seamlessly Team Romney had moved from a bloody primary season to leading a unified party.
That was then. Now, pundits marvel at what Time's Mark Halperin calls "the ruthless killing machine that is the combined White House-Chicago operation," the Windy City being the re-election effort's home base. This after a week or more dominated by Bain and taxes, and the Romney campaign's inability to explain either when the candidate really, truly left his old company or why he won't release his tax returns. And that unified party? By the middle of last week, liberal blogs were gleefully compiling lists of conservatives who had called on Romney to just release the damn taxes. It was only the tragedy in Colorado that--for the moment at least--broke the Washington media feeding frenzy cycle on Romney's Bain-and-taxes problem.
It was a reminder of precisely how hollow Romney's standing in his party is. The GOP didn't so much line up behind him as against Obama. He hasn't earned their trust or respect and so doesn't get the benefit of the doubt. Romney may have good strategic or principled reasons for sitting on his returns, but the party isn't taking his word for it and no one seems concerned about publicly contradicting him. That smells of political weakness.
That species of feebleness might explain why the Romney campaign's efforts to change the subject from Bain had the distinct whiff of base-baiting. Suddenly Romney was talking about the "Fast and Furious" gun-running scandal and attacking the administration for political cronyism, specifically as regards Solyndra. Throw in Romney surrogate and former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu wishing "this president would learn how to be an American" and the candidate himself describing Obama's policies as "extraordinarily foreign," and you have a campaign seemingly more focused on playing to conservatives than to swing voters.
Romney did finally proffer a plausible if not quite satisfactory explanation for why he doesn't want to release his tax returns. "The Obama people keep on wanting more and more and more," the former governor said on Fox and Friends. "More things to pick through, more things for their opposition research to try make a mountain out of and to distort and to be dishonest about." While not actually a good reason not to follow presidential candidate tradition and make a fuller release, the statement does neatly summarize what has emerged as a central tenet of the Romney campaign: Give them nothing.
How else to explain a campaign famous for taking the old Bill Clinton "it's the economy, stupid" formulation to absurd lengths? Romney's basic message can be summed up thusly: Obama's economy is bad; Romney is not Obama but has a business background and so has the secret formula for job creation. That's all fine, though other presidential campaigns have traditionally festooned their basic messages with detailed position papers on a plethora of other issues. Romney, on the other hand, does things like promising to pass immigration reform without actually saying what it would involve. Hell, a recent Fox News poll found that only 27 percent of Americans think Romney has a plan to help the economy, and fewer than half of Republicans think he does.
But it's an open question how much even this bothers the Romney campaign, which has hung its hat on the referendum theory of presidential politics—that re-elections are straight referenda on the incumbent, leaving the challenger a low threshold of inoffensive sentience to clear in voters' minds. But history doesn't bear that formulation out. The two modern incumbents who failed to win re-election—Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush—lost to huge political talents with whom Willard Romney is not on a par. You can't beat somebody with nobody.
Which brings us back to Bain and taxes. The Obama campaign has worked furiously to define the GOP's somebody. During the five weeks from June 4 to July 22, for example, the Obama campaign spent $43.7 million on television ads while the Romney campaign spent $17.9 million, according to the Washington Post's ad tracker page. (While Romney has been outraising Obama, most of the money can't be spent until the general election begins after the GOP convention.) Romney and his super PAC allies have run a grand total of one personal positive ad in favor of their candidate, according to veteran political analyst Charlie Cook. One. (Nationally, according to the Post, 99 percent of all ads run by the Obama and Romney campaigns from July 9-22 have been negative. That gives a new meaning to the 1 percent.)
To the extent that the Obamans can make Bain the bane of swing voters, the incumbent becomes a more palatable choice. That the Romney campaign has spent a good chunk of July scrambling to talk about anything but Bain is not a good sign for them.
It must be said that for all of the political world's attention on the Bain-and-taxes issue set, it has not translated to movement in the horse-race polls. But look beyond the top line and you'll see grim data for Romney. According to the Washington Post's "The Fix" blog, as recently as May, Americans in toss-up states were split on Romney's Bain background, with equal numbers seeing it as a major reason to vote for him or against him. This month, however, swing state voters saw it as a negative by a ratio of 2-1. And yesterday's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed a majority of voters saying that Romney does not have the "background and set of values" that voters can identify with. In addition, when asked whether what they have heard about Romney in the last couple of weeks gives them a more or less favorable view of him, 28 percent said "more favorable," while 43 percent said "less."
Here's the caveat: At some point in the next month, we'll look back at with bemusement at the mid-July stretch where Romney appeared to falter. The modern media age magnifies every political ebb and flow and makes it seem permanent. It's not. But if this election ends up as close as seems likely, Romney's inability or unwillingness to define himself first could prove fatal.
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