If Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney loses the election in November, commentators, campaign consultants and his fellow politicians will almost certainly look to this past week as the week when he snatched defeat from the jaws of the, well, still undecided. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
This run of bad – then even worse – luck was actually foreshadowed by the Republican convention in late August, after which the candidate gained no support bounce with voters – and in which that surreal Clint Eastwood dialogue with an empty chair overwhelmed any substantive commentary on the candidate’s own, actual acceptance speech.
Then, at the end of last week, Mitt Romney jumped opportunistically into the still-unfolding crisis in the Middle East, as US embassies and consulates came under fire and violent demonstrations from people presumably pumped up over that stupid film mocking Islam and the Prophet.
Even as the early stages of this crisis were still taking place, Romney accused the president of offering a craven apology to Middle Eastern zealots over the constitutional right of American freedom of speech that had contributed to the attacks on the US diplomatic missions. The GOP candidate repeated his charges even as the remains of the four US diplomats killed in Benghazi were still on their way home – and even after it became clear Romney had thoroughly confused the timeline of US government statements and events on the ground – conflating an early, informal US Embassy in Cairo tweet with the tragic events that came much later in the day.
But, as the weekend beckoned, other stories started appearing on websites like Politico describing the increasingly intense squabbling within the Romney campaign, this time targeting campaign manager Stuart Stevens as a thoroughly thoughtless, heedless and disorganised leader. Usually, such political campaign squabbles are a sign of a campaign in trouble – but the really public cat fight usually only breaks out after a candidate actually loses the election and the various warring protagonists begin writing duelling memoirs of a campaign waged and lost so that they can settle scores and insults.
Now, if these two problems were not enough woes for a candidate in one week, a video has now surfaced of Mitt Romney giving his pitch to a fundraising gathering of spectacularly well-heeled types assembled in a mansion in Boca Raton, Florida. Responding to questions from his hopefully open-walleted audience, Romney let loose a string of comments in which, among other things, he accused 47% of the country of being totally dependent on government subsidies, of being people who pay no taxes and who don’t have the wit to support him – preferring to be wards of the state and mindless Democratic Party supporters instead. Moreover he told his – hopefully incredulous – audience that he sometimes wished he had been born to Mexican parents so that he too could appeal to Hispanic voters in the coming election on shared racial and ethnic grounds.
If this were the voyage of the Titanic, the candidate would be cheerfully presiding over the captain’s table while quaffing a glass of non-alcoholic champagne and reminiscing about the days when he and his wife had had to consume far too much tuna-noodle casserole while he was still a poverty-stricken naval cadet. This while being oblivious to the growing commotion on board as the officers of the watch quarrelled loudly about whether they should steer the ship to port or starboard. Simultaneously, the chief engineer would have stopped the stevedores from shovelling any more coal into the boilers, even as the navigation officers were frantically searching for a safe harbour to head for (while reading their navigation charts upside down, and while the radio officer kept sending out signals of the ship’s location, using the wrong coordinates.)
Of course there is still a little time left to save the ship – the lookout in the crow’s nest is only just about to spot his first iceberg. But in the case of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, they have less than two months to turn this vessel around before their would-be-ship-of-state comes to a shuddering halt when it encounters the judgement of the American voter.
If you think this is purple prose, consider that Time magazine columnist Joe Klein has just described Mitt Romney’s situation saying, “Romney has placed himself in an impossible position and he’s gotten there the old-fashioned way: he’s earned it by pandering to the worst elements in his party, by embracing a phony narrative that vastly exaggerates what’s happening in this country (yes, entitlement programs – including social security disability as well as the middle-class entitlements – do need to be reformed). He has preached pessimism about America, seen the dark side of every issue – especially immigration, by the way – and, as we’ve now seen on Israel, taken the side of a foreign leader against our nation’s best interests (the very Netanyahu notion that a two-state solution is a bad idea and the best way to deal with it is to pay it lip service and kick the can down the road). All this has rendered his campaign a parachute jump into quicksand, and he is sinking fast.”
The growing challenge in the way of any hopes for the success of the Romney candidacy is in the fact that a presidential campaign is not just a debate about policies or even a battle of duelling campaign ads, social media postings, blogs, robo-calling telephone campaigns, rumour, invective and salacious innuendo. Even more importantly, campaigns are still about creating a convincing, believable narrative for a candidate that seems to be in keeping with the larger, deeper truth about a candidate.
For example, back in 2004, when a very rich, elitist Democratic presidential candidate, Massachusetts senator John Kerry, attempted to show himself at one with all those just-plain-folks hunters, fishermen and sports people across the country, the resulting photographs showed him carrying his shotgun the wrong way (the breech was closed), holding a duck he had just shot by the neck (it’s always by the feet, the feet!) and as a windsurfer, using a rig costing tens of thousands of dollars, an extreme sport virtually inaccessible to almost everyone else. Ha! Some everyman indeed, was the resulting discordant narrative – and that ran in tandem with the confusion about him as a candidate that came from unceasing Republican attacks about his probity, his veracity and his toughness.
In the case of Romney’s rush to judgment over the Obama administration’s supposed apologia for Islamic intolerance of free speech by virtue of their reluctance to defend the rights of a couple of cranks to make a vituperative, stupid film about Islam, Romney’s obvious intention was to show voters his vigour, strength, and energy. And this would be in contrast to that weak, confused, lead-from-behind Barack Obama. But, this bet – at least until now – has failed to pay off.
According to some very new polling by the Pew Research Center, in contrast to initial speculations the attacks would hurt Barack Obama politically – and that it would liken Obama to Jimmy Carter’s immobility during the Iranian hostage drama, the new polling indicates that among people following this story, the attacks have actually hurt Mitt Romney’s standing with voters.
Reporting on these Pew Center results, the Council on Foreign Relations says of that sample, “45% approved of Obama’s handling of the situation and 36% disapproved. Conversely, 26% approved of Romney’s comments on the situation and 48% disapproved.” Moreover, “Obama had higher approval scores than Romney on the embassy attacks across all demographic/political groups except for Republicans. Also, the independents that both parties are trying to win over in November were almost twice as likely to give Obama a thumbs up (44%) than Romney (23%). [Italics added]” If, as the media has described it, Romney had decided to “double down” on his statements later in the week to invest even more in them, that was clearly not a good bet.
As far as the distractions of campaign infighting are concerned, the Politico stories yet again derailed the campaign’s plan to – finally – return the Romney narrative to its presumed central, core themes of economic management and job creation. Instead, the campaign is again dealing with distracting media questioning over who is in charge, what their strategy really is, what their real message is and when is the candidate going to give his campaign manager the axe.
Then in their third and further embarrassment, the Romney campaign is dealing with the secretly videotaped recording of his appearance at that Boca Raton fundraising gathering. The tape was initially made available to Mother Jones magazine (a former counter culture icon and still an important investigative journal) by a grandson of former president Jimmy Carter who somehow got hold of it. But, regardless of how it came into Mother Jones’ possession, it has once again put Mitt into hot water over some awkward, inelegant, truth-bending statements.
In candidate Romney’s own words, so that there is no mistake about precisely what he said, “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…
“These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans [editorial quibble: it’s actually 46%, not 47] pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.”
Opining that 47% of the population would never support him because they are addicted to that government support IV and thus nearly genetically bred to favour Barack Obama and his supposed socialist agenda, Romney has argued that they get the subsidies but pay no taxes and can’t adjust to a different paradigm. In saying this, however, he has fatally conflated a wide range of things that just don’t add up.
First of all, whenever any of those people worked during their lives, they paid payroll taxes (for Social Security and Medicare) as well as a whole range of state and local income taxes, even if they never paid a cent in federal income tax. Moreover, many of these so-called moochers were now retired senior citizens reliant on Social Security rather than salaried income. Then, too, a major slice of this 47% were the working poor whose incomes were simply too low to end up owing federal income taxes after they were credited with deductions for that tax code’s earned income credit, the child care credit and the minimum standard deduction.
Another group of these so-called moochers comprises young people still in college, still working at low-end jobs, or currently – and unhappily – unemployed. That’s rather different than insisting they are all – all 47% worth of them – dependent on government largesse and imbibing an addictive diet of government dependence. Of course there is a residual remainder – but a relatively small one – of people who receive welfare, the generally accepted figure now is that welfare recipients now total only about six million people of this much larger number. (Many working poor do, of course, receive government benefits like food stamps and Medicaid.) The irony in all this is that one of the demographics where Romney’s support is strongest is among those retired people, over 65 years of age who are of modest means – the very people getting Social Security and not paying federal income taxes anymore.
Even more interestingly, Romney’s support remains strongest in states that receive more federal funding for all the many government programs than those states actually pay into the federal treasury. Usually these are southern and western states – as well as Alaska where libertarian ideology still has continuing strength.
That Romney could manage to make this argument and, when confronted by journalists about it, insist that his real problem was only that he spoke inelegantly, has managed to make conservative columnists like David Brooks squirm and hold their heads in wonderment and despair. As Brooks wrote after the story broke:
“The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees…”
Democratic campaign strategists were, not surprisingly, even less charitable to Romney after this latest stumble. Barack Obama’s campaign, for example, released a statement that accused Romney of having “disdainfully written off half the nation.”
Then, besides insisting Hispanic voters would have loved him much more if his grandparents had been ethnic Mexicans rather than Mormons who went into exile rather than accept the writ of the federal government, Romney had to go one extra step in the insult, and muddy the waters on foreign policy front yet again.
When he was asked by one of those rich, would-be donors about the “Palestinian problem,” Romney offered a detailed, rambling response that included the judgment “the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace,” and “the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.” This guy must be in a mind meld with Bibi Netanyahu – Romney’s quoted remarks then add he was against applying any pressure on Israel to give up disputed territory for a two-state solution with the Palestinians and that “The idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world.” To be fair, that final remark was not on the video link provided by Mother Jones, but only quoted by it.
Now it is true that all candidates make major and minor gaffes as they campaign. They can’t really help it – in the final months of the campaign the air miles mount up; the minimal sleep nights drag on down; and the irregular hours, dizzying roster of live appearances come pell-mell every day. Obama, after all, managed to insult many in Pennsylvania with his infamous guns and religion remark in the 2008 primary, and he survived.
The problem for Romney, however, is that his narrative as a tough, lean, mean executive fighting machine is being supplanted by one of Romney as a mistake-prone, shoot-first-aim-later, not quite ready for prime time businessman hopelessly aspiring for bigger things. And the clock is really running out on him to change things. In reality, he probably has one last roll of the dice to reset the game – the first presidential debate comes on 3 October and it will focus on domestic policy, supposedly Romney’s strong suit. He’s been hard at work practising for this matchup with Obama – but Obama’s team now has a bulging store of those inelegant Romney remarks, judgments and free-form verbal riffs, dating right back to “I love to fire people”. Expect them all to be part of the Obama charge sheet when the two men meet face-to-face, early next month. DM
Photo by Reuters
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall