On 'Swiftboating' Mitt Romney

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Many readers are wroth about my having used the word "Swiftboating" yesterday, in an NPR conversation with Guy Raz, to describe the controversy over Mitt Romney's Bain background. (That same show, by the way, began with an outstanding "Cover Story" segment on the social, environmental, and economic ramifications of the recent tumult in the coal business.)

Here is why I used the word, including points there was not time to make in real time on the radio.

1) As I said, the Bain controversy is similar to " 'Swiftboating' without the falsehoods." You may think that is like saying "war without the violence," but please follow along.

1A) If I had thought of it at the time, i would have added the term I've since heard from another journalist: "self-Swiftboating."

2) The effect of this kind of 'Swiftboating' is, as I pointed out, to change a candidate's presumed strength into his weakness, or vulnerability. The term's origin is of course the 2004 general election campaign, when falsehood-filled accounts of John Kerry's record (as a Swift boat naval officer in Vietnam) turned what he presumed would be a strength, his military record, into something he had to defend and explain. Long before the Swift boat episode, this jiujutsu technique was a specialty of Karl Rove's.

Here are other examples of candidates who had that switch pulled on them:

  • Hillary Clinton's presumed advantage over Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries was her vast superiority in political and governing experience. Obama turned the tables on her, by asking: What was the benefit of her experience, if it led her to support the Iraq war?
  • George H.W. Bush's presumed advantage over Bill Clinton in 1992 was his vastly greater experience, and his leadership of a worldwide coalition in the Gulf War. Clinton (and Ross Perot) turned Bush's foreign-affairs focus into a sign of being out of touch with the workaday concerns of "it's the economy, stupid" regular Americans.
  • Michael Dukakis's presumed advantage in the 1988 campaign was his calm, no-nonsense competence in the business of governing. The Lee Atwater/George H.W. Bush campaign team, with its Willie Horton ads and its exploitation of Dukakis's response to the "what if your wife were raped" question at a debate, made his unflappability into a weakness.
  • Etc

A "Swiftboating"-style attack can be particularly hard for the victim to respond to, because he can scarcely believe anyone has the effrontery to challenge what he is proudest of -- or believe that people will take the slurs and challenges seriously.

3) Mitt Romney's business background is not only his "presumed strength"; it is the entire basis of his campaign. His argument against Obama, which he presents with admirable discipline and clarity on the campaign trail, is:

  • Obama said he would fix the economy;
  • the economy is still broken;
  • I am a business veteran;
  • therefore I am the man to fix this mess.

If you don't buy the last two parts of this sequence, you don't buy anything about Romney's candidacy at all. Romney's team must know this. They should have been prepared to handle it, since it was much of the case made against him by Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, et al during the primaries. But so far they have been wrong-footed -- and their responses have expressed irritation that anyone would have the effrontery to question his business record.

4) As I would have said if there were more time on NPR, Romney's resistance to releasing his tax returns compounds this problem in a uniquely destructive way. It is uniquely problematic for him because:

  • his own father set such a memorable and dramatic example in the other direction by releasing 12 years' worth of tax returns during his 1968 presidential campaign;
  • the tax returns are unavoidably connected to the controversy over his Bain background (for how long was he getting paid by them? at what level? for what duties? with what shelters? and foreign accounts?)
  • perhaps worst of all, the campaign builds in a continuing story about when and whether he is going to release them. The daily drip-drip-drip story is almost always more damaging than bad news dumped out all at once. The longer the campaign delays, the more it guarantees coverage of the question: What is in these returns, that could be worse than the grief the campaign takes for not releasing them?

Already Louie Ludwig, who made the memorable "The Pig" parody of Reagan's "The Bear" ad, has illustrated what Romney will have to deal with until he releases the returns:



5) Here is another related interview, with Joshua Holland on AlterNet, about the current stage of press coverage of campaign disputes.

So, "self-Swiftboating" would have been better. But even "Swiftboating" alone does convey the situation Romney is in.

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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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