Michael Tomasky on Mitt Romney’s Naïve Evasion Strategy

Romney is working to fend off scrutiny. Can a master of prevarication make it into the White House?

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I’ve been pounding away at Mitt Romney’s lack of spine on the basis of his unprecedented reversals of position. We have never in modern American history had a presidential nominee who, as he ascended from the state to the national level, changed so many positions so shamelessly. But that’s not the only manifestation of his weakness. Take the three issues of his lack of specificity about the policies he supports, his inaccessibility to the press, and his refusal to release his tax returns. These highlight another aspect of the problem, one that’s no less telling and serious: His desire to sneak into the White House all but unexamined by voters.

Even Bill Kristol has complained that Romney is on “autopilot” and is not laying out a serious and clear vision. Romney hasn’t said what tax loopholes he’ll close or what federal programs he’ll slash. He then tries to argue that to do so would be foolish, like a football coach posting his playbook online (my metaphor, not his, but it’s the essence of what he says).

The problem goes beyond lists of loopholes or programs to the elements that constitute what we usually call a politician’s vision. What he’s going to do to fuel manufacturing, to spur innovation, to improve education; what he sees as the two or three main economic priorities for the next decade; where he will shift and direct federal resources; we know none of this. It may all exist on his web site in small and bromidic doses, but mostly what he says on the stump is that that Obama fellow is an awful anti-capitalist and I, Romney, will unleash the power of the free market and trust me, everything will light up guns-ablazing.

Moving on: On what has to have been the most politically maladroit trip abroad by a presidential candidate since Earl Browder went to Russia, Romney, as you probably know by now, took a grand total of three questions from the traveling press. He did consent to two brief sit-down interviews—both of which he botched, by the way, one with Fox and the other with ABC. But the standard practice on these trips is to do a “press avail” every day or at least most days and submit to a handful (five, six) of questions each time. He took just three questions, once. This tracks with his well-known general behavior throughout the campaign of almost never making himself available to the media, except of course for Fox, where he can usually (with a small number of exceptions) count on being asked questions about exactly how awful Barack Obama is. Despite the Romney campaign’s assurances that this will change, I wouldn’t bet on it.

As for the tax returns, Romney made a potentially huge error telling ABC’s David Muir while on the trip that he would be “happy to go back and look” at the tax rates he paid in past years. That’s perilously close to a commitment on which he can be pressed from now until Election Day. But what he will try to do, of course, is ride it out and stonewall Muir and everyone else. And just as he won’t name the loopholes he plans to close because doing so would merely allow those loopholes’ defenders to prepare for battle, he can’t release his tax returns, you see, because the Obama people would just distort them. There are always innumerable ways for cowards to explain how they were forced into cowardice.

He will try to stonewall for two reasons. First, it’s likely there’s something bad in there. Maybe really bad. If you missed this fascinating New York Times op-ed by Michael J. Graetz, a tax-law professor and a Republican ex-Treasury Department official, read it post haste. He sounds like he knows where the bodies may be buried. It’s mostly about that $100 million IRA. If some of Graetz’s suppositions are correct, Romney would be severely hurt if the information got out.

So that, from the Romney view of things, is the practical reason to stonewall. But the second reason is in a way of greater interest to me. He doesn’t want to release more tax returns for the same reason that he doesn’t want to talk to the press if at all possible, and for the same reason that he wants to lay out as few specifics as he possibly can. He wants to get to the White House without having to endure all the difficult challenges presidential candidates have always faced.

It’s another manifestation of his weakness. First, he completely reinvents who this “Mitt Romney” person is to placate a right wing whose power he fears. Second, having apparently accomplished that successfully, the point is now not to have to take any new positions, answer any annoying press questions, or reveal the truth about his fortune and his tax history. All of those can gum up the narrative he has crafted so carefully.

This is partly a reflection of the pathetic state of the GOP. In the primary season, he didn’t have to think through positions, argue specifics, as Obama and Hillary Clinton did over the details of health-care policy. All he had to do was plant himself to the right of everyone else and use his vast money advantage to club Rick Santorum in ads (from the right). But it’s also a reflection on the man. It’s astonishing to think that he might be able to go through this campaign without answering questions about his flip-flops and without saying much more than I love America, I worship the free market, and by the way, I’m not Barack Obama. And it’s even more astonishing to think that someone who hopes to be the president of the United States would want to.