Here’s the irony of 2012: This campaign was supposed to be all about President Barack Obama. A referendum. An election defined by unemployment skyward of 8% and behemoth debt.
The Obama campaign was already well on its way to redefining the terms of engagement, making the debate much more of a “you have to pick one of us” challenge for disgruntled voters.
Then Romney stepped in (or stepped in it, rather) and took the whole paradigm one degree further:
Somehow, the former Bain Capital tycoon managed to make the election a referendum on himself, and on guys like him.
Let me pause for a moment and nod at a couple of realities: Political campaigns at some point reduce politicians to caricatures. Barack Obama was never the “hope-change” messiah that some of his followers wanted to believe in.
And Mitt Romney isn’t the Thurston Howell plutocrat that even some conservatives are now lampooning. But when you’re selling a set of ideas and leadership to hundreds of millions of people, in a short period of time, branding matters.
Right now, Mitt Romney’s brand is all about “47%” and those fancy horses of his that competed in the London Olympics and the car elevator and the $10,000 bet with Rick Perry, and the casual dismissal of “victims.”
He’s the “New Coke” of conservative politics. Really, it doesn’t get much worse, unless you’re Todd Akin. So the question now is, what next?
The bad news for Republicans is that there is no evidence — none, zero — that Team Romney has the mojo to turn this around.
Democrats had the Come Back Kid. Remember that? Bill Clinton knew that when his side was on the ropes politically, he had to storm back with big rallies, big ideas. You couldn’t help feeling that he was having fun, fighting for his life with a grin on his face.
But the GOP is stuck with the grinchy guy who insults his hosts in London, muffs the crisis in the Middle East, and (still) won’t release his taxes.
Oh yeah, and the guy who gave the green light to Clint Eastwood’s infamous “chair” speech, which became the symbol of this year’s Republican National Convention. Oh yeah, and the guy who insulted the cookies of a supporter who had invited him into her home.
“I’m not sure about these cookies,” Romney said during an April campaign stop. “They don’t look like you made them. Did you make those cookies? No, no. They came from the local 7/11…bakery…or whatever.”
So it’s not about one “gaffe” or awkward moment. It’s turning into a question about leadership, about basic skill as a messenger of political ideas, about the ability to connect.
(One of the ironies of modern politics is that it’s still a flesh-and-blood, human contact, one-on-one, let me look into your eye and kiss your baby business. Romney just doesn’t seem comfortable with that stuff, by which I mean comfortable with, you know, people.)
Some Republicans are urging Romney to resurrect his campaign by giving some big, hefty policy speeches, really digging into the challenges that face the American people. I’m all for it. But if Romney had that kind of stuff up his sleeve, wouldn’t we have heard about it by now?
This is a mature, experienced and intelligent politician who still — years after he started running for president – can’t figure out how to talk about his own impressive record tackling healthcare reform.
There’s one other reason for pessimism. While Romney’s campaign has been astonishingly inept, the Democrats have been almost scarily effective this year.
And they’ve been “oppo” researching the Republican — a man who is still not well known by the public — for months.
Even if he doesn’t hand Barack Obama more gift moments, like the one we saw this week, and last week, and the week before, you can bet that Romney will find himself in the hot seat at least a couple more times.
That may be an ugly side of American politics, but it’s been that way since about 1776 and it’s not about to change in 2012. Is Romney ready for the final gauntlet? Let me put it this way: He’ll have to surprise us.