The campaign has come down to a race between Mitt’s media and Mitt’s mistakes—and the mistakes are winning.
We have now crossed the billion dollar mark in ad purchases. In Ohio alone, the two sides, Super PACs and all, are spending $30 million in the closing week—and in the battleground states overall, Romney forces are outspending Obama by $30 million.
But the contest is not as unbalanced as the numbers. The Obama money goes further because more of the total buy has been placed by the campaign itself, which by law pays less for television time than outside groups. Obama’s strategists also got more for less than the Romney enterprise by buying well in advance, when the so-called lowest unit rate was lower. In any event, the airwaves in the swing states are saturated. The Thursday before the election, the noon news on the CBS station in Columbus, Ohio, featured 22 political spots one after another. A lot of it, perhaps most of it, is so much electoral wallpaper.
What matters more is what happened months or even years ago, when Mitt Romney inflicted serial damage on himself that can’t be wiped away by a last-minute ad barrage or a barnstorming tour through the final hours.
Go all the way back to Nov. 18, 2008, when Romney wrote that op-ed in The New York Times headlined: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Few pieces have had as long or relevant a political life. Michigan, Mitt’s original home state, and Ohio, home to 850,000 auto industry-related jobs, have proved stubbornly resistant to a Republican nominee who seems so conspicuously hostile to their livelihoods. If the President carries both states, Romney’s prospects next Tuesday look about as promising as the Edsel’s in the 1950s. For those too young to remember it, the car was a landmark flop. Wikipedia offers a commonly accepted explanation: it was “a supreme example of the corporate culture’s failure to understand American consumers.”
Romney’s op-ed was a supreme example of a corporate guy’s failure to understand American voters. He can quibble that he favored “a managed bankruptcy”—without the use of federal funds. The Obama campaign—and most experts—respond that in the depth of the financial crisis, there was no private capital available to keep the auto companies in business while they were reorganized. That’s true, but almost beside the point. What’s indelible, immediately apprehensible, persistently top-of-mind is the headline itself. Romney could have claimed he didn’t write it; he didn’t. He could have argued it wasn’t what he meant. Instead, he doubled down, telling an interviewer: “That’s exactly what I said—the headline you read—‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’”
In a last-ditch attempt to crack Ohio and Michigan, Romney has now resorted to advertising an outright lie—that Chrysler’s Jeep division will soon move its jobs from the United States to China. The media has debunked the fiction, which was borrowed from the fantasy precincts of the rightwing blogs. The Detroit press called it “false” in a news story— not just on the editorial page. TV stations have scorned the Romney spot—at times, pre-emptively refuting it just before it airs. When Bozo the Trump tweeted the lie, a Chrysler Vice President swiftly tweeted back: “You are full of shit.” The Obama response ad was easy to make, entirely believable—and of course, showed a grimly grinning Romney letting Detroit go bankrupt. Maybe he’s created a new watchword and a warning for Presidential politics: Would that mine opponent would write an op-ed.
Now fast forward nearly four years to last summer in a second, probably fateful Mitt mistake. It fits with the first one—and reinforces the narrative of an out-of-touch, plutocratic candidate who doesn’t care about working families or the middle class. Romney let the Obama campaign pummel and define him as the profiteering-job destroyer from Bain. Eighteen years after this attack shattered his Senate bid against Ted Kennedy, you would think Mitt had an answer other than nostrums about “free-enterprise.” The fact that he didn’t offer one suggests that there isn’t a convincing one. When he was asked on CBS, he simply brushed the question aside: the President is “grasping at any straw he can find.”
After a summer of dithering, the Romney campaign fled to relatively contentless website www.sterlingbusinesscareer.com defending his tenure at Bain. This is an inexplicable case of lame and latter-day rather than rapid response. According to Politico, the site has attracted “far fewer than the number of eyeballs on the Bain attacks on the airwaves.” Ceding the ground here left Romney’s favorable-unfavorable rates upside down with swing voters from Las Vegas to Toledo— and left him with a steep hill to climb. Even as he made progress, which he finally did, he has been struggling to erase the deficit.
The struggle intensified when he selected Paul Ryan as his running mate instead of the safer, Ohio-friendly Senator Rob Portman—the choice of most of Romney’s advisers. Ryan, who has proposed to replace Medicare with Vouchercare, instantly threatened the nominee’s margin with seniors, who are essential to assembling a barely sufficient GOP coalition. Some Republicans rejoice that their vulnerability here has been blunted by charging—falsely by the way—that Obamacare cut more than $700 billion from Medicare (the cuts were in excessive payments to entities like insurance companies.) But the GOP campaign has had to spend time and millions of dollars on this—and the hard evidence suggests that for them the battle is being lost. The latest Democracy Corps survey reports: “[On] Medicare … Obama [is] trusted by 14 points over Romney in the states where the issue has been contested in advertising from both sides.”
If the Republicans lose Florida—and when Obama holds on to senior-rich Pennsylvania, Mitt’s last, least hope—put it down to the Ryan mistake. The choice didn’t even achieve one effect its champions insistently predicted— that it would energize the sanforized Romney. Instead of Romney being Ryanized, Ryan has been Romneyized. He’s become a bland non-presence—which, given the sharp edge of his views, may be the better part of rightwing valour.
Then came other big mistakes, interrupted by one notable success.
The convention, which was supposed to introduce and humanize the Republican nominee on its last night, morphed into a Saturday Night Live skit. It was an elementary failure of event planning to let an unscripted Clint Eastwood conduct a farcical debate with an empty chair- and then to push real-people testimonials to Romney’s character out of prime time so Florida Sen. Marco Rubio could talk more about himself than Mitt. There was no bounce—and a marked decline for the Republican nominee after a bravura Democratic Convention a week later in Charlotte.
If the Obama of the second debate had showed up to the first, the election would have been over then and there. But he didn’t; it was his mistake and Romney’s singular moment. But the Republican seemed to have no coherent plan for his second and third encounters with the President other than insisting that the race was simply a referendum: If you’re kind of dissatisfied with the economy, give me a try; after all, I am in the midst of a moderate makeover. This typifies the pervasive error of the Romney strategy. The Obama forces cast the election as a choice: who’s on your side—on tax fairness, on fighting for the middle class, on equality for women and all Americans, on decency towards immigrants? The President vigorously prosecuted his case in the last two debates- and Romney ended up on the wrong side on choice after choice.
I had predicted that Mitt could win the first debate—and he clearly did. But I argued that this would not change the structure of the race unless Obama stumbled again—and he didn’t. The Romney “momentum,” which was less than it was cracked up to be, has long since stopped for all but the delusional and disingenuous Dick Morris, the turncoat Clinton adviser who laughably foresees a Romney “landslide.” I guess this is what Rupert Murdoch pays him for; at least, Morris could have gotten the electoral votes right for the states he mentioned. Karl Rove, now also of Fox, has offered up more modulated happy-talk. But as Romney desperately reaches for Pennsylvania and Minnesota, virtually no one believes the spin—apparently not even Newt Gingrich, whose blog slipped up and posted a prediction that “Obama is going to win.”
Romney’s colossal mistake on Libya in the second debate also prepared the way for the real October surprise, the bromance between the President and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Mitt was slapped down for politicizing Libya in that debate—and reproved by moderator Candy Crowley for being outright wrong on whether Obama had called the attack an “act of terror.” The GOP nominee refused to venture back into the controversy the next time the two candidates met. He had disabled himself; despite the fevered advice of the neocons, and the relentless conspiracy-mongering of the embittered John McCain, Romney was quiescent. And the real issue at stake wasn’t just foreign policy, where Obama is far ahead, but ultimately the quality and character of his Presidential leadership. The response to Hurricane Sandy was the sequel— and the President’s most powerful and persistent validator was Romney’s convention keynoter, Chris Christie. He showered praise on Obama as “wonderful”—and added: “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”
I think I know who’s going to win when I hear the bloviating Rush Limbaugh denounces Christie as “a Greek column” for Obama’s reelection. And you can measure the desperation of the Romney Campaign not only in his sudden apparition in Pennsylvania—if he can’t make it in Ohio, he has to try somewhere else—but in the race-baiting of the bumptious John Sununu, Romney’s co-chair, who attributed Colin Powell’s endorsement of the President to the fact that they’re both African-Americans.
Whether this was intentional or a mistake, it was plainly shameful. And as I have argued before, it was a mistake for Mitt’s strategists to invest so much in the wallpaper of late advertising while neglecting field organization—where Obama has a deep-rooted and potentially decisive edge.
Finally, Romney made some unavoidable mistakes embedded in the DNA of today’s GOP. He assumed, correctly, that in the primaries he had to pander on social issues to the religious right— and on immigration to a party that has become the modern incarnation of nativism. He can plead in mitigation that he had no choice—and if that is so, look for another Republican defeat in 2016. On Nov. 7, Romney may be asking himself: What does it profit a Mitt to gain a nomination and lose his chance to make history in the White House?
Still, the fault is not just in his party but in himself. The Romney campaign has been a trail of missteps—and the Obama managers masterfully took advantage of this and took control of the race. So let’s thank Mitt for making his own mistakes. As we may have noticed, he’s very good at it. Romney—R.I.P.