Good Campaigns – and Candidates – Avoid This Stuff
In tennis they call what Mitt Romney has been doing for the last couple of weeks “unforced errors.” In football, Romney has been committing turnovers in the red zone. His primary game has been the political equivalent of fumbling on the six yard line. In my long ago basketball playing days we called what Mittens has been doing – Mittens is what the ever nasty, but always with a smile Maureen Dowd has taken to calling Romney – “blowing the bunny.” That was pickup game short hand for missing the easy, uncontested layup – the bunny.
Romney made millions, as we now read in the papers every day, by the careful, calculating, some would say ruthless, takeover and remodeling of corporations. Corporations may not be people, but they are apparently more accommodating to Romney’s management style than the grueling primary quicksand that now threatens to sink him in Florida.
At the moment when the once secure frontrunner should have been stretching for a victory lap, Romney’s unforced errors – three of them seem particularly egregious – have given the twice dead Newt Gingrich a new lease on life. The Gingrich who stole South Carolina in Jon Stewart’s way of thinking must be close to exhausting his nine lives, but that is another story for another day.
Mitt’s three missed layups – his tax returns, Bain Capital and Romneycare – deserve the bunny label because any campaign operative worth his or her salt should have ground down these issues months – years? – ago and found a way to talk about them, or at least front end them, in a way that would not threaten to cripple his campaign. The unforced campaign errors that plague the Romney camp again prove that business experience rarely translates to political agility.
It is now widely reported that Romney is likely the wealthiest guy who has ever aspired to the Oval Office. It was a no brainer months ago that his tax returns and his personal and family wealth would be an issue in the campaign, particularly in light of the Occupy movement, the continuing fallout over big Wall Street pay days and the partisan debate over taxes on the most wealthy Americans. The campaign should have seen this coming like a Form 1040 in the mail.
The Romney campaign could have – and should have – quietly released his tax returns during the dog days of last August; packaged not as it played out as a purely defensive move on the candidate’s part, but as an “I’ve got nothing to hide” moment of transparency. The release could have been handed to an individual reporter who could have been given open access to the candidate’s financial and legal advisers. Such a move would have been the best chance to ensure a complete, fair story that might have been less about politics and more about economics and how the tax code really works.
Sure I’ve done well, Mitt could have said, and I want all Americans to have a chance to do well, too. And as for this capital gains tax rate that Obama keeps harping about – guess what? It works! I worked hard, made money and now I’m investing in other companies just like they tell you it works at the Harvard Business School.
Romney would have gotten plenty of questions about his taxes, but those questions would not have made news on the eve of the Florida primary and wouldn’t have given Newt Gingrich, he with his own bundle of secrets, an issue to bash him over the head with. And, while we’re assessing unforced errors, what smart campaign operator decided that once the Romney returns were going to be dumped that it should happen right in the middle of the run –up to Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech? Half a brain might have correctly concluded that the president’s speech would be all about the struggling middle class in contrast to the Thurston Howell III class? Obama speaks now for the middle class, Mitt for those with Swiss bank accounts.
Fumble number two involves Romney’s unbelievably clumsy handling of his Bain Capital story. His work as a private equity whiz is the absolute centerpiece of his personal narrative, which holds that his kind of business experience is just what the country needs right now. Yet, the campaign never fleshed out the narrative beyond the fact that Romney worked at Bain and created “thousands of jobs.” What did he learn about the country working there? Why do the lessons apply to politics and governing? What management style would he bring to the Executive Branch? Zilch on all that from Mittens.
Smartly answering those questions with appropriate verification, endorsement from people he worked with and from companies he turned around could have been a powerful narrative. His handling of his Bain story has become, rather than a strong positive, a combination of Gordon Gekko of Wall Street meets Mr. Potter of Bedford Falls. Suddenly Romney’s business career is a real liability.
One now completely obvious thing the Romney campaign could have done months ago and had ready in the can: its own 30 minute film version of Romney’s story at Bain. Instead the campaign now finds itself reduced to defending capitalism – or in Rick Perry’s one good line of the campaign “vulture capitalism” – in the abstract rather than extolling the details of a credible story of job creation and economic growth. Romney’s handling of his Bain history reminds me of how badly the 2004 Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, did in managing his Vietnam War record. The strongest piece of Kerry’s story was laid waste by the Swift Boat attacks and he never recovered.
Finally, Romney, as we are about to see in Florida, has kicked his health reform story out of bounds on fourth down and short.
Romneycare, the Massachusetts version of health insurance reform that Mitt championed as governor and now avoids like swine flu, may have been the most obvious issue his campaign needed to manage. He still hasn’t found a credible way to talk about the issue and a Gingrich supporting Super PAC is now on the air in Florida with the completely predictable attack that Romney has not yet found a way a deflect.
In every serious campaign a candidate will be dished a few unwelcoming surprises. Given the long slog we put these people through it’s a given there will be the quip that sounded funny in the head, but turns out to not be so funny played over and over on television. The “you’re likable enough, Hillary” moment “or the clinging to guns and God” line that offers a rare glimpse inside what a politician really thinks. These moments are bad enough and force campaigns into damage control.
It’s the unforced errors, the mistakes made due to lack of planning, lack of attention to detail or inability to really self reflect that often hurt the most. After all, they can often be avoided if a candidate and a campaign are really on the top of their game. Romney clearly isn’t. He best get better really fast.