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.


David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide