Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Romney's Need to Define Himself

Ross Douthat shares a thoughtful perspective on the struggles Mitt Romney faces as the Republican Convention and presidential debates approach. I'll note, though, that he falls prey to the tendency of the political junkie to obsess, months ahead of the election, over slight movements in the tracking polls as evidence that one candidate or another is likely to win. Douthat sees the lack of movement as reassuring,
So Obama isn’t actually being borne upward by the Bain contretemps any more than he was actually dragged down by his own “the private sector is doing fine” facepalm moment. Instead, public opinion has been remarkably stable since the spring, with both candidates moving up and down between the mid and high 40s, mostly within the margin of error.
I think he's mistaken, though, to suggest that the criticism of Romney on Bain, and the increasing number of Republicans who are calling on Romney to release his tax returns, can be dismissed based upon those poll results. They tie directly into what Douthat tells us Romney must do: Define himself in positive terms. He has abandoned his tenure as governor as a qualification for the White House, his tenure at the Olympics isn't really something he wants scrutinized, and that leaves Bain.

Romney's political opponents are aware of that. Four years ago we saw John McCain complain about Bain's outsourcing and dismiss it as a qualification for the presidency. Four months ago we saw Newt Gingrich accusing Romney of "vulture capitalism". If we use the words of Romney's surrogates, that pretty much means that Gingrich and McCain are socialists who don't even know what it means to be American.

Although Romney has devoted the past two decades attempting to position himself for the White House, and the past six years to actively campaigning, as Douthat observes, he has yet to define himself. He seems to be premising his entire campaign upon two things: 1. He's not Obama, and 2. rich people need more tax cuts. Did I leave anything out? Douthat seems to agree,
For Romney to accomplish the same feat, he will need to reassure voters that he represents something more than just a rubber stamp for the interests of the wealthiest Americans.
It's not as if Romeny's failure to "introduce himself" is new news.
When the press is all punched out, Romney will have $100 million and his own formidable political skills available to make his rebuttal. ... The fact is, Mitt Romney will have enough money and enough political skill to define himself when the time is right.
Update that to about a billion dollars and you might not realize that's what a Romney supporter was arguing five years ago. The same guy supporter, four years ago:
I hope Mr. Romney does well enough in Michigan today that he gets the opportunity to introduce the public to the real Mitt Romney.
Here we are, four years later, and it has become a joke:
Douthat believes that Romney should watch a few Reagan speeches and... emulate? Imitate? That Romney should articulate even a weak tea vision for America,
They would involve supplementing his critiques of the Obama White House’s crony capitalism with an acknowledgment of the financial sector’s sins as well. They would involve supplementing his promise to repeal the Democratic health care legislation with a vision of what might actually replace it. They might involve returning to a theme that he struck in April, when he suggested that this election will come down to “jobs and kids,” and offering more to struggling middle class parents than just a tax cut on their (meager) capital gains.
It tells you something, though, doesn't it, that we're almost four years past the collapse of the financial sector, and it's still necessary to ask Romney to acknowledge a problem? That the Governor who signed Romneycare into law demagogues against a federal law that, for all intents and purposes, is the same as the one he passed - and, despite claiming to have solutions and having previously suggested that he was the man to bring health insurance reform to the nation - has nothing to offer?

Douthat should note that Romney has offered "struggling middle class parents" more than "a tax cut on their (meager) capital gains" - he's offered to make it harder for them to get and keep health insurance, and to cut government programs that benefit them. I suspect that's not what Douthat has in mind. Douthat imagines that Romney could promise to get government off of our backs, Reagan-style? The man who can't utter a word of criticism for the financial sector, who pays lower taxes on his fortune than most working Americans, who has a $100 million IRA (based upon supposed $6,000 annual contributions), who has six houses, friends who own NASCAR teams and have private back yard golf courses.... Yeah, the government has crushed him.

Douthat's invocation of Reagan brought to mind the fact that, love him or hate him, the man had fantastic delivery. He cultivated an image, style of presentation, style and wit that was highly effective. Douthat inspired an image of Reagan, at my door, apologizing for running over my cat - and that by the end of his apology I would probably both like him and feel sorry for him. Romney? Why is it I'm picturing a stammering explanation punctuated at some point by the emergence of his checkbook?

Romney does need to define himself, but he needs to define himself credibly. I suspect that the reason we haven't been introduced to "the real Mitt Romney" is that his advisors have been trying out various costumes and personas, and are discovering that Romney really is the businessman in a suit, staid, boring, gray at the temples, and yes, self-interested, we've been seeing all along. Romney trying to be Reagan would likely seem as genuine as Dukakis in a tank.

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