Mitt Romney's biggest problem is... Mitt Romney

The Republican's whiny "I'm rubber you're glue" attitude to Obama will alienate American voters.

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...

 

Mitt Romney's fractured reflection. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

Photo: Getty
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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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