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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Break Out the Hand Sanitizer

In the middle of what might have been the worst two weeks in modern presidential campaign history, one of the nameless, faceless GOP smart guys who never want to be quoted by name – the Democrats have them too – said of Mitt Romney: “We’re running against Jimmy Carter, but we nominated Tom Dewey.”

Thomas E. Dewey, of course, lost to the supremely unpopular Harry Truman in 1948 and is now remembered as perhaps the worst major party presidential candidate in modern times. With the full acknowledgement that six long weeks remain before election day and any number of things could still turn the election in Romney’s direction, it does seem clear that the businessman-turned-presidential candidate is an updated version of a bad candidate, a Tom Dewey.

If Dewey was famously described as “the little man on the wedding cake” then Romney is, as a friend said, “the guy who shakes your hand and immediately reaches for the sanitizer.” The Republican convention failed to “humanize” Romney, because, well, he really is a buttoned-up, man of privilege who doesn’t have much in common with the vast majority of people who will nevertheless vote for him simply because he is not Barack Obama.

That is the central reality of Romney’s campaign. The candidate made the strategic decision long ago that he could win the White House not by selling himself, but by being the only alternative to an incumbent with a crappy economy who pushed unpopular health insurance reform legislation. By adopting this strategy Romney violated a central rule of politics: You can’t beat something with nothing.

For weeks now there have been calls for Romney to get specific, offer some details and paint a picture of what a Romney presidency would be like. He still has time, but the real question is whether he is capable.

In his famous losing race with Truman, Dewey took the same approach. Speak in platitudes, promise better times, but never get to the heart of the matter. Richard Rovere, of New Yorker, said of Dewey’s campaign rallies, “he comes out like a man who has been mounted on casters and given a tremendous shove from behind.” Sounds familiar.

The usually wise and always elegant Peggy Noonan – she wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan – says Romney needs an “intervention” to shake up his campaign. She suggests that a GOP wise man, say James Baker, ride to the rescue and save Romney’s campaign from the candidate.

“The Romney campaign has to get turned around,” Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal.  “This week I called it incompetent, but only because I was being polite. I really meant ‘rolling calamity.'”

Here’s another context for the 47% Romney recently dissed. Not being Barack Obama will get him 47% and Romney really could have gotten those votes by stopping all campaigning and decamping to his home on Lake Winnipesaukee for the duration. Now the CEO-cum-candidate has a few days and three debates to reset his campaign one more time and get three or four percent more. What might he do?

He could do the Peggy Noonan inspired James Baker intervention, which might help bring some message and scheduling discipline to the Romney campaign. The guys who just got the bonuses won’t like it, but handing over the campaign to a GOP wise guy might bring order to the “rolling calamity.” But an intervention is not likely to happen with the blessing of a CEO who is only playing a candidate on television and who just paid $200,000 in bonuses to guys who helped him get behind in every state he needs to win.

Romney could stop doing one event a day and quit fundraising in Utah and Texas while he should be in Iowa and Ohio. Romney could start running like he is a candidate for sheriff – embrace the spontaneous, hold town hall meetings, mix it up with his 47%, pull a few 18 hours days and, heaven forbid, sit down for interviews with the media.

Romney could also get specific on how his economic approach might actually work. Does he have one big idea? Maybe he could talk about something of substance.

The one sure thing the GOP candidate has going for him is the reality that the political media will not let this thing end prematurely. As Morning Joe Scarborough said today: “The news media [are] not going to allow Mitt Romney to lie on the mat between [now] and November. You’re going to see a swing back. … If Mitt Romney can take one punch after another from his own fist … and this thing ties back up, you’re gonna have a lot of clenched people in the Obama campaign. Because they’re going to go: ‘God, this guy keeps blowing himself up, and we can’t get rid of him.’ …. He still has the opportunity to pull this out.”

Truer words were never spoken, but it still remains that the most difficult thing in politics is to halt a slide by trying to get a candidate to be something they have never been. Mitt Romney is a CEO. He makes plans, raises money, hires people and sticks to his plan. Successful political candidates improvise, they adapt, they work diligently at getting better and they wade into crowds and create those moments that voters use to measure character and judgement. Romney’s hand sanitizer approach to his campaign is like a well-rehearsed, if boring symphony. Politics is free-form jazz, frequently messy, but interesting.

Remember Reagan’s famous “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green” moment during the 1980 New Hampshire GOP primary; a moment Reagan came to believe launched him to the White House? Can you imagine Mitt Romney in such a setting, saying such a thing, connecting in such a way? Hard to envision.

In the aftermath of Tom Dewey’s loss to Truman in 1948, the Louisville Courier-Journal said in an editorial: “No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.”

Mitt Romney’s future lies just ahead. The national media will let him get back in the ring, but he’ll need to do something out of character to really reset his campaign. He’ll have to become a passably decent candidate and that is simply not in his style.

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