Chessmaster or Pawn: Readers on the Romney Strategy

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I just finished an NPR show, To the Point with Warren Olney from KCRW, on the practical difficulties the Romney campaign is encountering through the combination of Bain and tax-return matters. Also discussing this were Christopher Rowland of the Boston Globe, Matthew Yglesias of Slate (and ex of The Atlantic), and Matthew Dowd of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign.

The big news from the discussion was Dowd's prediction that "within 48 hours" the Romney team would have to do something to change its trajectory. (You can listen to it here.) That something could be releasing more Bain info; saying more about his tax background; leaking a VP pick -- or anything else that would change the main news story from what it has been for the past week. (The rest of us said that we had no idea when or whether the campaign might do something, but that its current path was violating all known rules for damage-limitation, getting bad news out quickly, etc.)

Without comment, a sample of reader mail in response to this item and its predecessors, on why the Romney campaign is handling these issues the way that it has.

- In response to my saying that the no-new-tax info stance was not tenable if Romney wanted to win, a conservative reader writes:

What makes you think that Mr. Romney wants to win the election?  Or that he REALLY cares if he wins??  Or that he has much in the way of REAL plans (which would require a 60 vote Senate and a majority House) that he would seek to implement if he were elected?

This comes from a man who finds Mr. Obama to be a deplorable President, a lying, no-good phony who is no more American (in his dreams, goals, and outlook) than was Mr. DeGaulle.

I see no evidence that Mr. Romney is in it to win, or that he would do much different if he did.  Pity.  Given that, do you wonder why people like me love Ms. Palin?  I do not think she is of Presidential timber, but by God, I like her.  Go figure.

- Another reader says it's more about the psychology of being rich (a point Matthew Dowd also made on the radio show just now):

A couple major theories behind Romney's tax return intransigence seem to have developed on your blog and elsewhere: 1) there is something politically debilitating in those returns, and 2) he is playing some triple bank shot long game to embarrass his enemies in the process of overstepping. 

Despite the high likelihood of Option 1, these theories both ignore the more primal and fundamental reason- which is that Mr. Willard Romney just doesn't think he should have to release this stuff. 

Like many Captains of the Universe, Romney has an absolutely huge sense of entitlement. He is just dripping with condescension when he answers questions about this stuff.  He has always been brittle when his record has been questioned, even when it was done with kid gloves by fellow republicans....

I know the "campaign" is probably in full pushback mode, but I wonder if Mitt, personally, really even understands how important this is.  He behaves in every way like it is something he can dismiss with a wave of the hand... At the end of the day, Romney is the one deciding on the direction of this campaign.  And right now I think we see that he just doesn't think is anyone's business.

- In the same vein:

I don't claim any special insight into the thinking going on within the Mitt Romney Presidential campaign.  It may include all the elements about which you have posted.  Romney's own thinking may incorporate some of those elements as well, but I doubt any of approach his core beliefs.

Romney's a boss, a businessman, the kind of guy used to running his own show.  He delegates what he thinks he needs to, but not much of what he delegates is likely to be a really key decision.  He also measures his success by the money he has made -- which is not a judgement of mine, but is reflected in his own public.  His success, his money, his business...which means nobody else's business, especially that of less successful people.  You know who that means.

Political calculation, as I say, is surely present in Romney's thinking, but as politicians go his calculations have tended to be fairly artless.  In any event, I think what we're seeing here is the slow gathering of forces and voices pushing him to do something he does not think he should have to do -- not because he has a different political calculation, but because showing the public the details of his business affairs goes against the habits of a lifetime and his deepest personal beliefs.

- In response to a previous reader's suggestion that Romney was actually playing a version of the "birther" game -- letting his opponents extend themselves with ridiculous criticism, only to release relatively benign facts later on and expose them as cranks -- many, many readers wrote to disagree. For instance:

I guess it is possible...anything is possible but that doesn't pass the sniff test -
 
1) That suggestion hinges on Romney's returns being less aggressive than the one he has already released...yeah right..I am sooooo sure that Romney was putting out less aggressive returns before he was really (really!) running for President. Especially from the time he was making money hand over fist.
 
2) In what world is the damage he is sustaining now by looking like he is hiding something (reinforcing negative beliefs Americans already have/sewing doubts with those who don't) outweighed by scoring some sort of meta point against the most over the top pronouncements?
 
2a) I fail to see how this meta point will neutralize the larger Bain attack series even if it solves the technical 1999-2002 issue.  The tax return issue is just another side benefit from a line of attack the Obama campaign has settled on.
 
3) Obama arguably held out longer than necessary to make the release all the more devastating (that said, the State did go seriously off its SOP to release the thing and IIRC did not think it legally could for a long time) but (and this is why it is totally different from the tax returns) - it was/is a total nutter issue.  Wanting tax returns is normal.
 
4) The idea that Romney is playing 9 dimensional chess* here is completely incompatible with their to date fumblebucking on this issue. They look uncoordinated because they are unprepared to deal with it, nobody not even 9 dimensional chess masters, wants to look this bush league.

* Oh and I think that after watching Obama back foot Romney for the last few months (seriously, when was the last time the political press spent a day obsessing about the economy? Referendum election my ass) and put him in one uncomfortable box after another, we can safely and definitively answer the chess master or pawn question.   

- And:

A commenter on another blog reports Josh Marshall's suggestion to keep an eye on Steve Schmidt, who knows what's in those tax returns from the McCain VP vetting, and has not called for Romney to release them. (Don't know if Schmidt is playing that kind of pundit/kibbitzer role these days, though.  Or he might just enjoy watching Mittster twisting in the wind on a personal level.)

Re the update-- waiting to the last minute to release innocent-looking returns is a non-starter.  No rich man has innocent-looking returns to the average guy.  Reporters and commentator types would pore over them and they'd generate all kinds of shocking headlines about tax shelters and complex deals and etc.  First rule of politics is to get this kind of stuff out early if there's nothing illegal in them, just some embarrassment.  Holding onto them until the last minute is political suicide, Obama birth certificate or no birth certificate.

-And:

1)  releasing tax returns should be informational, and not deployed as a weapon.  Voters need to see tax returns for multiple years.  Romney Sr.'s disclosure of 12 years is admirable.  Doing a tax document dump on October 30 or later would be cynical and not helpful.

2)  Romney gave 23 years of tax returns to John McCain, who bypassed Romney to go with the untested Sarah Palin.  During a period of economic upheaval.  That's troubling.

Your reader, I believe, suffers from wishful thinking or employment with a Republican organization.  Maybe both.

- And:

I'm surprised you credited the long game strategy.  It overlooks the obvious:  ultimate vindication doesn't make up for weeks or months of credible criticism.  Check polls on what people think about Obama's birth.  That's why campaigns work so hard to answer criticisms within minutes.

- A different take on this topic:

The simplest Romney game: trade his tax return for Obama's college records and standardized test scores (a favorite subject of yours.)  Who has got more to hide?  At least Romney can argue that the IRS saw his tax return and found nothing to prosecute.  What has Obama got to hide?  Is he an affirmative action creation?  Did he claim foreign citizenship?

- Finally for now, a reader on the deeper "casino-crony capitalism" point about the ways in which people in different walks of life are and are not held accountable for their actions:

I worked for my dad's company in the late 80s. It was an oil-patch company in Houston that transshipped oil off of Supertankers (VLCCs & ULCCs) in the Gulf of Mexico. It was, in my opinion, a very well run company with a management team that were all owners, along with a corporate investor who funded a chunk and held some board seats.

After the Valdez incident (not an accident, imo) corporate law started to place more and more legal liability on the CEO. My dad kept his position and sweated it out. They knew they had excellent training, very solid ops manuals, hired good captains and crews, etc. But you're operating two tankers parallel in the open waters with rubber hoses across them.

Knowing what I do now about rogue waves, I'm damn glad they did this in the Gulf, which at least wouldn't be as likely to have them as the big bodies of water. Anyway, an accident could occur, even of natural/unpredictable causes. Or a sea captain as bad as Hazelwood could be at the wheel of the VLCC/ULCC being lightered (ie: not under the ownership or control of our company but the importer's company instead).

The point is, when my dad wanted to retire, to care for my dying mother, none of the partners was willing to step up to be CEO. None of them could sweat the responsibility.  Eventually one of the partners did step up and dad retired. But it took years. It makes me so insanely angry to see Romney trying to dodge his share of accountability when true job creators (at its' peak, my dad's company had 9 white collar jobs and over 70 workboat staff, all employees, plus pilots and other contractors, plus supply contracts that must have created jobs, etc) have to take considerable personal risk to run businesses.

Dad could have gone to jail under Texas pollution law even if he hadn't been found the slightest bit negligent, if there had been an accident leading to a spill. Jail would have been admittedly unlikely, but it hung out there. Massive lawsuits and civil fines would of course happen, as would dragging his name through the mud. Even with the best plans, training and monitoring in place. Thankfully, the company ran successfully for many years before being sold and rolled into a larger int'l firm, free of spills.

The upshot: Romney strikes me as [lacking courage] when compared to an actual entrepreneur and CEO. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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