Welcome to the Mittness Protection Program, general-election style: The man accused of having no core beliefs thinks the way to win is to keep his views to himself.
On Monday, this Romney spokesperson managed to chew gum and deflect questions on Romney's position on the Supreme Court's immigration ruling at the same time.
"When is Romney going to look like a challenger? Seems to play everything safe, make no news except burn off Hispanics," media mogul Rupert Murdoch tweeted Sunday.
It's been the plaintive cry of worried supporters and the shrewd observation of reporters for going on a year now: Mitt Romney's favored strategy for pursuing the presidency this cycle is to hide in plain sight, avoiding hot-button issues except when forced to articulate positions on them, as during debates, and then reverting to close-lipped type. He's declined to release tax returns dating to before 2010. He doesn't make his bundlers known. He tells his donors more about his policy ambitions than the public, as reporters discovered in April when his remarks were "overheard by reporters on a sidewalk below" the room where he was speaking. He holds "secret meetings" with voters to collect campaign anecdotes. Most recently, he's avoided taking a firm stand on the Supreme Court's decision partially overturning Arizona's strict immigration law. But as in the primary, where Romney's cautious style caused worry he was setting himself up for a protracted battle -- something that in fact came to pass -- there are real dangers in his approach.
"You're running for president and there's a golden opportunity for a challenger, given the economy, given the many failed initiatives of the Obama administration. It's somewhat confusing as to why he's playing it so close to the vest," conservative Republican strategist Keith Appell told Politico's Ben Smith last August.
Plus ça change. Here's why it could be good tactics but bad strategy for Romney to stay too far above the fray in the general:
1. It makes Romney look weak.
Former President Clinton famously said after the 2002 midterm elections, in which the Republicans, the party in power, anomalously picked up seats, "When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right." Failing to take stands on the major issues of the day because they are controversial makes Romney look like he lacks the courage of his convictions. That reemphasizes the attack on Romney that he lacks convictions at all. But a say-nothing candidate is actually not the same as a say-anything one; the latter looks craven, the former, afraid.
And to the extent that President Obama makes bold moves on potentially divisive social issues, Romney's fear of coming too distinctly into view -- his "attack-and-dodge strategy" -- is cast into even greater relief.
2. It makes him look like he has something to hide.
Between the overseas bank accounts, the lack of financial disclosure, and the destruction of his gubernatorial records in Massachusetts, it already looks like Romney is trying to hide his record and the true extent of his vast wealth. Failing to takes stands on major issues besides makes Romney look like he must believe something terrible in his heart of hearts.
The perception that Obama contained multitudes, even if he did not, worked for him in 2008. He was a newcomer on the scene onto whom voters projected their fantasies, hoping he would be a less conventional political actor than he in fact has been. But there's a real risk for Romney, who is better defined in the public mind than Obama was, that attempts to remain a bit of a cipher will just make him look sneaky.
"Trust me" is not a compelling campaign message for our our low-trust era.
3. It gives new weight to the argument he has no core and doesn't believe in anything except his own success.
All of this adds up to the idea that we can't know who Romney is. This is just anecdata, but a year ago, a number of Democrats of my acquaintance looked at Romney and saw a credible alternative to a president they were mad at -- a well-educated moderate Massachusetts Republican for whom they could vote without fear or embarrassment. Today, that warmth has passed and I hear a growing nervousness about him, a fear he would be worse than George W. Bush in office because of his lack of core convictions and the greater fractiousness and power of grassroots Republican activists, whom he seems open to indulging.
They are worried, in short, that "he who stands for nothing will fall for anything."
Romney's issue positions look increasingly like the negotiations of an attorney trying to close a deal -- he'll say what he needs to say, he'll tack and trim, and he'll change course if need be in order to get the result he wants at the great public bargaining table. But once in office, how will such a man govern? Romney's campaign is trying to play it safe by not revealing too much. But there's a real risk people also will look at that caution and develop some hesitations of their own.