Republican Mitt Romney decided long ago that the only thing he was going to focus on this campaign was the economy.
Not gay marriage. Not immigration. Not gun rights. Not anything but the economy and how the president botched it.
He'd present himself, as he did when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, as Mr Fix-It while his deep-pocketed confreres spent beaucoup bucks attacking from the rear.
The idea was that the election is a referendum on Barack Obama's first term, but in focusing exclusively on the economy, Romney forget something: to define himself.
Most candidates for president tell a story about themselves that connects with Americans emotionally and intimately. Beyond policy, image, mud-slinging and ideology, candidates hope to craft narratives that make them feel real.
But unlike George W. Bush's story of redemption and Obama's story of audacious hope, Romney's story inspires little affection. In fact, his story might inspire the opposite of affection, and that may be what Romney fears most.
- He's the son of a wealthy businessman and statesman who attended elite universities before founding a Wall Street firm that made millions for shareholders while sending thousands of American jobs overseas.
- He's an influential member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), an arcane religious sect that, unfairly or not, most Americans really don't understand, and neither do some former Mormons.
- He lives in the shadow of his legendary father. George Romney was the head of the innovative car company (AMC), a firm that made things, as opposed to a private-equity firm like Mitt's Bain Capital that makes nothing. He was also a progressive Republican who fought for civil rights and even contravened his own party to achieve equal opportunity while Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Nixon.
- And Romney the son is the former (centrist) governor of the only state to initiate universal health care. That would be something to crow loudly about if Romney were a Democrat or if this were 2008. But in 2012, the Republicans' conservative faction has disqualified the fact that he set the example for the biggest domestic policy program of 21st-century America.
So Romney doesn't talk about himself.
That means opportunity, and Obama has taken it.
In a series of attack ads, the Obama campaign has portrayed Romney as a corporate raider who dismantled companies, sent jobs to Mexico and China, and pocketed millions. The president has, as Lou Dubose of the Washington Spectator put it, taken a page from the Karl Rove playbook.
The former Bush advisor was famous for taking an opponent's greatest asset — in this case, Romney's background as a big-time business leader — and turning it into his greatest liability. Rove did just that when he "Swiftboated" Vietnam War hero John Kerry. The difference, as Dubose sees it (and I agree), is that while Rove's attacks were based on misinformation, conspiracies and fabulist reveries, Obama's attacks are distinguished for their being grounded in fact.
Indeed, Romney has tried to create the impression that Obama is lying about his tenure at Bain Capital, but with rare exception, everything the Obama campaign has said about Romney has come from independent news reports.
Obama is also taking advantage of a tic unique to Romney. Talking Points Memo dubbed it the "Rubber/Glue" method. Here's how it works. The president calls Romney an "pioneer" in outsourcing (true, according to the Washington Post). Then Romney returns volley, saying: "I'm rubber you're glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!" He adds that the president is the "Outsourcer-in-Chief."
I wish I were kidding. The more Romney does this, the whinier he appears. Americans don't like whiners. Especially rich ones.
So Romney's main problem may be Romney. If he talks about himself, he risks losing votes. If he doesn't talk about himself, he risks losing votes. It's Mitt's Catch-22.
If Romney can make this election look like a referendum, he has a chance to win it. If he doesn't, and instead Obama dominates the campaign narrative, then he's sunk.
Even House Speaker John Boehner knows this.
The American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney. I’ll tell you this: 95 percent of the people that show up to vote in November … are going to vote for or against Barack Obama. … Mitt Romney has some friends, relatives and fellow Mormons … some people that are going to vote for him...