Mitt Romney Lost the Summer: Tax Returns, Overseas Gaffes & More
Robert Shrum on the easily foreseen Bain attacks, London stumbles, and other calamities that sank Romney.
After the worst foreign excursion of any presidential hopeful since his father visited Vietnam and announced afterward that he was “brainwashed,” trippy Mitt found no surcease of sorrow in an unwelcome return home.
The first blow came from a brace of polls. The Pew Research Center showed Romney suddenly behind Barack Obama by 10 points, with the president above the crucial 50 percent mark. Quinnipiac/CBS/New York Times surveys in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania had Obama hitting or exceeding that mark, with leads between 6 and 11 percent. The underlying numbers were more ominous for Romney. His favorable/unfavorable, already underwater in Pew’s June numbers, collapsed from -6 to -15. No nominee in either party has entered the final phase of the race so tarnished in the American mind.
Republicans assailed the Pew and Quinnipiac polls with the fervor they usually reserve for inconvenient truths about climate change or the Affordable Care Act. But while they can quibble with figures, the overall lay of the swing-state land is clear. On Aug. 1, The New York Times’ Nate Silver had the president ahead in every one of his 10 “tipping-point states.”
The problem with Romney isn’t just what the Obama campaign has done to him, but what he has done to himself. Months ago, as he struggled through the GOP primaries, we learned in the debates and in his days on the trail, and he should have learned it too, that he can’t trust his mouth. From “I’m also unemployed” to the $10,000 bet—the list is legion—Romney blurted out a discordant symphony of tone-deaf proof that he was out of touch and perhaps out of his depth. He instinctively says the wrong thing.
A prudent campaign would corral the candidate, scheduling practice and more practice, and abjuring spontaneity. The latter wouldn’t sacrifice anything anyway, as scripted or not, he sounds like Romney the robot. It’s doubtful that he can’t memorize, but it’s indisputable that he can’t tell a joke. When he tries, the joke is generally on him. And it’s political malpractice for his political handlers to let him, or for him to insist on breaching the bounds of his buttoned-down persona. Richard Nixon found this out the hard way in 1960, and eight years later, in his second run for the White House, he was tightly contained, sanitized, and successfully resistant to any debate with his opponent Hubert Humphrey.
Ducking debates is impossible now, but preparing for predictable problems, and even easy questions, should be Campaign 101. The fiasco overseas was as avoidable as watching and applauding his wife’s dancing horse at the Olympics. The first point in his briefing book should have been to praise, not parse or impugn the London Games.
Romney’s tongue trouble during the primaries and his stumbles in Europe and Israel are part of a pervasive pattern that would manifest itself again and again once he found himself not so safely back on American soil. To put it bluntly, in the public arena, this self-styled business whiz is, well, kind of dumb, probably coldly brilliant as a numbers cruncher but persistently deficient in political IQ. Either he doesn’t listen to his advisers or they’re obtuse themselves, or fearful of speaking bluntly to a candidate who’s full of himself. Being a nearly all-powerful, seldom contradicted CEO is a lousy preparation for a presidential bid, and the attitudes that role can embed and harden would be dangerous in the Oval Office. As John Kennedy said, you need two or three “sons of bitches” around who can tell you when you’re wrong.
What’s fundamentally wrong with the Romney campaign was evident in the stories about his job-destroying record at Bain Capital that once more plagued him last week. As Michael Finnegan reported in the Los Angeles Times: “President Obama’s blistering indictment of his Republican challenger’s career … has come to define Romney … among swing voters” in Ohio—a state carried by every winning GOP nominee since 1860. Democrats win without it, but not Republicans.
What’s most remarkable here is not the boldness of the president’s assault, which will prove well worth the expenditures that are worrying the usual ranks of Democratic hand-wringers. The remarkable, even stunning, reality is that Romney wasn’t ready for the Bain assault 18 years after it crushed him in his Senate contest against Ted Kennedy. As a strategist on the Kennedy side, I marveled then at Romney’s response, which ranged from self-damning silence to sheer ineptitude. This time, he had to know what was coming, but he has blithely dismissed the issue, switched the subject, and invoked clichés about free enterprise.
Maybe he can’t prove that he created as many jobs as he claims. That surely wasn’t the focus of his business; financial enrichment was. Maybe his own polls warn that Bain’s ruthless exploitation of several companies, vividly expressed by workers in both the Kennedy and Obama ads, can’t be redeemed by the survival and success of some other Bain takeovers. But that’s no excuse. A serious presidential campaign should have at least a passable answer to an obvious, expected, and potentially disabling attack. To hold stubbornly to a strategy that poses the election as simply a referendum on the economy is a myopic exercise in playing political chess—or in Romney’s case, checkers—without paying attention to the moves on the other side.
Or take the controversy over Mitt’s refusal to release his tax returns, just supercharged by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s report that a Bain investor told him Romney paid no taxes for 10 years. GOP surrogates and commentators, who have never seen the returns, rushed to the barricades of the Sunday talk shows to label Reid “a liar.” They were uniformly indignant—and unconvincing. All they did was pour fuel on the fire. As veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins said on Fox News, the questions are “gonna dog [Romney] all the way,” and the only way to “to put it behind him” is to “release more taxes.”
I am now convinced Romney can’t. Either his closest confidants have convened around a table and concluded that there’s political disaster in those returns, or the candidate already knows this all too well and won’t show them to any of his handlers lest the information leak. Logic and my own experience in presidential politics persuade me that the only reason to withhold something like this is if its release could put a near end to the campaign.
For Romney and his operatives to find themselves in this situation is inexplicable, except on grounds of heedless greed. The man has known he was going to run for president for eight years or more, and perhaps for his whole adult life. So close the Swiss bank accounts and offshore investments in tax havens in, say, 2005 or 2006; he’d get away with disclosing just five years of returns. And he could have made sure he paid a reasonable percentage in income taxes each and every year. He didn’t have to jump through every loophole, moneybags in hand. To the horror of his accountants, he could have skipped some deductions. How about last year’s $77,000 deduction for that dancing horse?
In short, Romney needed to straighten out his financial affairs, and those around him should have told him to do it long ago. And if he is his own principal adviser on this, then he has an adviser who’s a fool—a very rich fool. His ignorance about the political fallout seems to be matched only by his arrogance in assuming that he can be simultaneously a plutocrat and presidential nominee.
The third Romney smackdown in his first week back was something of a surprise. But it should have been predictable, even if it wasn’t entirely avoidable. The Tax Policy Center calculated the impact of his tax plan and found that the great tax-cutter would be increasing taxes on 95 percent of Americans in order to bestow mega–tax breaks on the mega-wealthy. The president’s strategists instantly put out a new ad: Romney would “raise taxes on middle-class families by up to $2,000 a year.”
This could be devastating for the Republican—and the Romney—brand. So his campaign reflexively, desperately, and inaccurately resorted to another round of fulminations that dispensed with inconvenient truths. The study was “biased” because one of the authors had served on the staff of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers? Another of the authors was a CEA economist, too—under George H.W. Bush. The study failed to account for “pro-growth” elements? It bent over backward to grant Romney favorable if unlikely assumptions about exactly that, and about the planned consequences for ordinary Americans. The center was “liberal” and the conclusions were a “joke”? The Romneyians had previously cited the center’s “objective-third party analysis” of primary rival Rick Perry’s tax proposals.
To paraphrase Casey Stengel, can’t anybody there in Romney’s headquarters play this game? Pressed for substantive answers, his economists stonewalled the details that have been missing from the first moment, when the candidate ballyhooed something that is more a calculated concession to his conservative base than a coherent plan for America. Inevitably, it would explode either the deficit or middle-class taxes.
Thus Romney led with a glass jaw and took a hard punch. He can’t afford to provide the details here any more than he can let us see his tax returns. But shouldn’t his campaign have seen a study like this coming and worked out a minimally persuasive response in advance? Instead there were the buzzwords—those old standbys “liberal” and “bias”—that convinced only the already converted audience in the right-wing peanut gallery.
Romney has awkwardly, steadily maneuvered himself onto the wrong side of the divide that the Obama campaign has effectively cast as the defining choice in 2012: who stands up for the many and who stands for the few?
Still Romney clings to that one-dimensional strategy of referendum: if you’re unhappy enough with the economy, why not give me a try? But to compound his unhappy return to America, he had to deal with job creation unexpectedly picking up steam in July, 163,000 new jobs instead of the anticipated 100,000. He was reduced to complaining about the uptick in the unemployment rate. He and his fellow Republicans are rooting for a slowdown. The congressional GOP has cynically, almost transparently blocked any measure to lift growth, and then they blame the president.
It’s working, sort of, but not well enough. Not only do the polls indicate that the bottom is peeling off the Romney campaign, but the models developed by political scientists, which factor in both opinion surveys and economic statistics, also give Obama the advantage. One model, from Yale, UCLA, and George Washington University, puts the president’s chance of reelection at 74 percent, if his approval rating is just 45 percent and economic growth for the year is a modest 1.5 percent, and it almost certainly will equal or exceed that. Even if the economy flat-lined—at this point barring a collapse in Europe, all but impossible—the race would be pretty close to a toss-up.
That model was published in April. Since then, Romney’s been cementing his place as the least-liked nominee in decades, and that must be worth another point or two. Tuesday morning, he in effect confirmed that his economic message was falling short, switching to a new ad that demagogued a worn Republican shibboleth, beating up on welfare and welfare recipients. The candidate’s flailing, and on this one, he will have to deal with Bill Clinton.
Momentarily, Romney will pick a running mate. Metronomically, in the whirligig of today’s relentless news cycle, the pick will generate waves of attention. But neither that nor a convention bump, by no means a sure or lasting thing, can permanently or completely reverse the damage he has already inflicted on himself, with more than a little help from the president’s campaign.
Right now, Romney doesn’t just look like the uncaring and disconnected candidate from and for the privileged. At home as well as abroad, he seems to be yet another airhead son of a famous father. We’ve been there before. The battle of the summer is over—and Romney lost it.