Monday, July 16, 2012

What’s Left

As far as the Republicans are concerned, there are three selling points to Mitt Romney:

1. He has business experience that will put America back on the road to economic recovery;
2. He was a successful Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state, so he can work with everybody; and
3. He’s not Barack Obama.

Well, in the last few weeks we’ve seen Number 1 come under scrutiny for the cutthroat tactics and outsourcing of jobs overseas at Bain Capital, plus questions about when Mr. Romney really left the company. If it really was in 1999, why was he still listed on the company’s documents, and why did he collect nearly half a million dollars in payments when he allegedly had nothing to do with the company? (Nice work if you can get it.) The explanations from him and his surrogates are beginning to sound like Bill Clinton’s tortured explanations of exactly how he did not have sexual relations with that woman, and “retired retroactively” has become as much an internet and Twitter sensation as “it all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

They’re caught in a bind. The Republicans and the Romney campaign have sneered at the attempts by their opponents to point out nuances; they don’t think the “common people” pay attention to the difference between “tax” and “penalty” when it comes to the ACA, but now they want us to know the difference between “outsourcing” and “off-shoring,” and they expect us to understand why it’s perfectly okay to still collect a salary from a job you claim you left years before, and you really don’t need to see his tax returns. And now, as Josh Marshall points out, the embedding of words like ‘joke’, ‘liar’, ‘felon’, ‘retroactively retired’, ‘SEC filings’, ‘Caymans’, ‘whiner’, ‘buck stops here’, ‘hiding something’ will forever be linked to Mitt Romney and Bain Capital the same way “swiftboating” and windsurfing latched on to John Kerry.

As for Number 2, Mr. Romney’s signature achievement as the Governor of Massachusetts was the passage of healthcare reform. It’s been a huge success, and anyone else would be proud to run on it as a genuine accomplishment. The problem is that it was the model for the Affordable Care Act passed by President Obama and the Democrats in 2010, and Mr. Romney and the Republicans have vowed to repeal it. As far as anyone can tell, the only legitimate reason he might have for that is copyright infringement. So since he can’t run on that, what else does he have to show for his government experience? Precious little; Massachusetts did not emerge as a powerhouse of the economy under his stewardship, and aside from his White House ambitions in 2008, he chose not to run for a second term in 2006 because he stood a good chance of losing. That’s not exactly a record to run on at the presidential level.

So we get to Number 3: he’s not Barack Obama. Well, neither was Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman or any of the other GOP primary challengers who toyed with the idea of running against him. The only reason Mr. Romney emerged as the winner in the primary was because he came in second the last time. The GOP is big on entitlement, so it’s his turn. (Are you ready for Santorum ’16?) And he’s Not Barack Obama.

The problem with that is that he doesn’t have the likability qualities of the president. Poll after poll show that even people who disagree with him on policy matters like Mr. Obama personally, especially compared to Mr. Romney’s klutzy people skills, verbal gaffes, Etch-A-Sketch changes to his positions, and his complete unawareness that he comes across to people as the caricature of the rich plutocrat. You can’t tell your friends that you really told off the NAACP to vote for the other guy to keep getting free stuff while you’re taking a $77,000 tax write-off for your pet horse and expect to come across as anything but out of touch. As much as I think elections should not be about which one you want to have a beer with, it still is a question that matters to a lot of people who vote, and Mr. Romney comes across as not the guy you work with but the guy who laid you off.

Two legs of the Romney candidacy stool have been weakened considerably, all without the help of outside forces, and the third leg — “I’m not the other guy” — only works when you’re running for student council. So what’s left for him to run on?