Frank Luntz is tired. The right-leaning messaging guru has crossed the country over the past week giving seminars and speeches—a tour that, in the next few days, will take him from Los Angeles to Washington, up to New York, to North Carolina and then to Texas. “Are you writing your story today?” Luntz asks on the phone, admitting that he’s laying on a couch in his Los Angeles home.
I’ve called Luntz, the veteran mastermind of Republican political messaging, for a little messaging help. Not for me, but for Mitt Romney, who at the moment—likely fatigued from constant travel and speeches—would seem to have something in common with Luntz.
Romney, the embattled GOP nominee, is on the defensive about his personal finances and his business record as a corporate CEO. Democrats have pilloried Romney’s career, casting doubts on when he actually left his company, whether he did in fact oversee the outsourcing of jobs, and just what’s hidden in old tax returns that Romney has held close to his vest in a death grip.
But Luntz is willing to throw Romney a bone. “Democrats are in the process of destroying his strengths, the one thing that connects him to independents and conservative Democrats,” he says. That, in essence, is exactly what happened in 2004, when fierce supporters of the sitting president tried to undercut John Kerry’s key credential—namely, his service in Vietnam. “The Obama approach is not a surprise. Romney should have known this would be coming.”
A handful of GOP strategists consulted by The Daily Beast admit they’re surprised that Romney hasn’t had a response prepared for attacks on his Bain record, and that questionable finances weren’t dealt with several years ago, before Romney started running in earnest. All of which makes Romney’s current predicament tough to swallow.
“Romney has not pivoted!” Luntz says, sounding a bit in disbelief. “Bain is about an individual company. This election is about a country. Romney has forgotten that. If this is just about companies, Romney loses. If it’s about the country, Romney wins.”
So now, according to Luntz’s reading of Romney’s tight spot, “you now have a situation where Romney is in deep trouble because they’re attacking him at the very place of his very credibility,” says Luntz. “And so he has to respond.”
The question is, how?
“He can say, ‘look, you can talk about what I did 15 or 20 years ago. But [President Obama], what did you do 15 or 20 months ago?’”
The answer lies in accepting that every presidential candidate has a weakness. Obama had a rather large one, spending several weeks during the 2008 campaign beating back bad press related to his provocative Chicago minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Once Romney embraces his, he’ll be more agile to pivot. “He can say, ‘look, you can talk about what I did 15 or 20 years ago. But [President Obama], what did you do 15 or 20 months ago? You can criticize me because I’m not perfect. Not every business succeeds. Not every idea is a good one. But what have you done when you’ve been responsible for the country?’”
As for Romney’s taxes, perhaps there was an easy out, but that off-ramp was several miles back. “These accounts should have been closed. Everything he did is perfectly legal, but it doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t feel right. If you have the ability to do things that someone hasn’t done [like pay different tax rates], that’s the problem.” Now, says Luntz, it’s simply not enough for Romney to ask voters to take his word that his personal income taxes are squeaky clean.
As a tired Luntz wrapped up our interview, I asked the communications consultant who wrote the New York Times bestseller, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, if anyone from the Romney campaign has contacted him for help. The answer was no.
Yet still, he took a long breath and offered some pro-bono advice to the struggling campaign.
“It’s a set of questions,” Luntz says, admitting that Romney’s winning argument might take a lot to get through. “And those questions are ‘Why do we still have over 8 percent unemployment after four years? Why is this the largest deficit in history? ‘Why did you increase the debt more than the first 40 presidents combined? Why did you force on America a government takeover of health care that we can’t afford as individuals or as a country?’ Then you say, yes, I am not perfect. Not every business I engaged in succeeded. More of them did than didn’t. But in the end Mr. President, you can try to change the subject, but you can’t change reality.’”
Luntz repeats the last sentence. “That would be the line.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned Luntz’ hotel room. He was, in fact, in his own home. The Daily Beast regrets the error.