As I mentioned starting back in June, Mitt Romney's campaign has one message that (in my view) Romney and his allies should stick to all day, every day, from now until November 6. That message is:
- The economy is broken;
- Obama can't fix it;
- I can.
Clean, simple, pure. And an impressive GOP ad, which I can't find online at the moment*, takes just that approach. "He tried" -- with a photo of a beleaguered Obama. "You tried" -- congratulating the nation on its pluckiness in hard times, and also on being open-minded enough to give this untested non-white freshman Senator a chance. "It's OK to make a change" -- no one will think the worse of you for pulling the plug on this unsuccessful experiment.
Whether you're for Obama or against him, you have respect the power and directness of this approach. So why did Romney let himself get into extended arguments this past week about the cultural-vs-structural origins of national wealth and poverty? It's hard to see which voting bloc they bring to his side, easy to see the complications they create, and all too evident that they use up campaign time that could be devoted to The Main Message, as above.
The possibility I raised a few days ago -- that these misadventures reflect badly on Romney's basic skill level as a politician -- was bolstered by the astonishing NYT op-ed yesterday from Jared Diamond. Diamond's famous book Guns, Germs, and Steel was of course half of the intellectual fodder Romney cited for his "it's all about culture" argument -- the other half being David Landes's Wealth and Poverty of Nations. The point wasn't that Diamond completely disagrees with Romney's reading of his book -- though boy does he ever, as you'll see if you read the item. Rather it was that Romney went this far out on a limb in citing Diamond without, apparently, having anyone check with, make a call to, attempt to charm, attempt to quiet down, or in any other way try to fend off further distractions involving a writer who is still very active and whose email and direct phone line are listed on his university web page. (I know because I once reached Jared Diamond that way.)
In the past day there has been another illustration. Sen. Harry Reid kicked off this round by suggesting a solution to the mystery of why Mitt Romney had not released back tax returns. Reid claimed that a one-time Bain investor, whom he wouldn't name, had told him that Romney was reluctant because in fact he had paid no taxes for a ten-year stretch.
This is a big claim, and if Reid proves to be wrong everyone should pile on him. And it presents Romney with an opportunity and a challenge. Opportunity: if he can prove that the claim is wrong -- and that Reid is wrong to have broadcast it -- then he turns the Bain/tax issue to his advantage. Challenge: proving that point, while still not releasing his returns.
You can imagine lots of ways Romney could express his irritation with Reid and his indignation at this charge. The one thing he cannot sensibly do is, unfortunately, the one thing he did: slapping back at Reid by saying "put up or shut up."
Just to spell this out: If you're the one who has decided to keep certain information private, you're in an awkward position demanding that somebody else show his cards. Logically you might be able to draw the distinction: Reid is making the accusation (via his informant), so the burden of proof is on him. But running for office is not a moot court or a purely logical proceeding, and merely by drawing attention to the topic of "information that would clear things up but that we're not being allowed to see," Romney works against himself. The "put up or shut up" phrase itself invites a one-time boxer (and I am talking about Reid -- that's him above, landing the punch) to turn that challenge back on Romney. If the charge is false, there is one person who could disprove it immediately, and that of course is Romney himself. Put up or shut up.
And meanwhile the story gets refreshed for further news cycles, as reporters can keep asking, drip-drip-drip fashion, when and whether Romney will reconsider his decision about the returns.
We face again the question of whether we're seeing limits on Mitt Romney's basic feel for the process of politics. In my previous post I compared this "political IQ" to "overall athleticism" or "ball sense." A reader who works in sports says there is a better comparison:
The most appropriate sports analogy here would be something in boxing called "ring generalship" Doesn't have anything to do with a boxer's punching power, speed, defense etc but how he (and now she) commands the space in the ring; how he positions himself in relation to the other fighter to maximize his particular skills while diminishing the opponent's assets. In a close fight it is actually a factor that can be incorporated into the scoring.
And, to really drive a metaphor into the ground .... Romney is taking wild swings at his opponent in the foreign policy part of the ring - call it the middle- where Obama is at his best instead of moving Barack into the economy corner and keeping him there with short, frequent and relentless daily jabbing.
To quote the immortal Angelo Dundee (above) --"yer blowing it kid."
* Found it. This is an impressive ad.