At a time when his campaign was in need of a boost, Romney suddenly comes alive on the stump.
The Mitt Romney who spoke in Bowling Green, Ohio, on Wednesday wasn't robotic or stilted. Speaking without a teleprompter, he paced the stage, jabbing at the air with an index finger, shirtsleeves rolled up, surrounded on all sides by an amped-up crowd. There seemed to be a new fire in his belly, an unaccustomed passion. For Romney's stumbling campaign, an adrenaline injection may have come from the most unexpected precinct: the famously uninspiring candidate himself.
The trigger appears to have been President Obama's observation last week that "if you've got a business, you didn't build that." (In a salutary development for those covering the campaign, both candidates have begun speaking without teleprompters and riffing off-the-cuff; it's as if they're as bored as we are of hearing their standard, scripted speeches.)
"What he's saying," Romney told the crowd in Bowling Green, "is that if someone has succeeded, if they built something, he's saying they didn't really build it -- no, it was the government, it was the government that takes responsibility. So for the student in school that works hard to get on the honor roll, that's not really them -- it was their teacher that did that, and the government that paid for it. And if somebody came here across the border legally and brought their family seeking a better life, their success is not due to them -- no, no, they didn't build it; the government gets credit for that. And if a person in their job says, 'You know what, I'm going to work hard an get more skills, and I got a promotion' -- that promotion, oh by the way, that's not yours, that's thanks to government. That's where this leads."
It was the vehemence with which Romney delivered these lines that was surprising -- a forcefulness usually absent from his bland recitation of a stump speech calculated first and foremost to offend as few people as possible. By (arguably) dissing free enterprise, Obama, it seems, struck at the core of Romney's being, arousing at long last the passion beneath his buttoned-up exterior.
Now, it should be noted that in substance, Romney appeared to be in total agreement with Obama, who was trying to point out that both government infrastructure and social resources are essential to businesses' success. Here's what Obama said in Virginia on Friday right before the "you didn't build that" line: "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges."
Romney made exactly that point, even using the same examples: "A lot of people help you in a business," he said. "Perhaps the banks, the investors. There's no question your mom and dad, your schoolteachers, the people that provide roads, the fire, the police -- a lot of people help. But let me ask you this, did you build your business? If you did, raise your hand!" The crowd roared, and Romney crowed: "Take that, Mr. President! This is what's happening in this country! These people are entrepreneurs!"
It would be reductive, though, to say that Romney and Obama were in total agreement. Romney heard Obama's comments as giving too little credit to individual initiative; Obama sees Republican rhetoric as insufficiently appreciative of the support of community. The difference was one of emphasis.
Romney, like Obama, too often seems diffident, aloof, just going through the motions of politics. He has little to no ability to fake it when he's not interested in something, making it tough for voters to envision him as a fighter on their behalf. His campaign has been flailing of late, unable to shake the tax-return issue or turn the conversation elsewhere, and tempted to resort to desperate measures. But in politics, there's no tactic quite as good as a revved-up candidate on the warpath.