Can Romney Make Cronyism an Issue for Obama?

The challenger tries to paint the president as corrupt but just ends up calling attention to his own refusal to disclose who his biggest donors are.

Mitt Romney has a new line of attack on President Obama, complete with catchy slogan: "Political payoffs and middle-class layoffs." The idea is to contrast the still-stagnant state of the economy with what Romney says is a pattern of favors and kickbacks for Obama's friends and donors. "This is a tough time for the people of America, but if you are a campaign contributor to Barack Obama, your business may stand to get billions of dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from the government," Romney said Monday morning on Fox & Friends. "I think it's wrong. I think it stinks to high heaven."

Romney and his campaign point to examples like Solyndra, the failed solar-energy company that received more than half a billion dollars from the government before going under, as well as reports of the Obama Administration's coziness with lobbyists. The attack represents Romney's attempt to turn the page from last week's frenzy over his retirement date at Bain Capital, which was itself a remarkably successful gambit by the Obama campaign to divert attention from a still-lousy employment picture.

There ought to be a promising populist theme for Romney here. One of the chief reasons for voter disappointment with Obama is that he fell short of his 2008 campaign pledge to change the culture of Washington, quickly capitulating to the same practices and interests his outsider campaign had vowed to challenge. Romney can truly claim to be a Washington outsider, having never served or lived within range of the nation's capital, but he's gotten remarkably little mileage out of this trait over the course of the campaign, perhaps because of his squarely establishmentarian affect. Like Obama, whose attempts at full-on eat-the-rich class warfare often come off as forced or half-hearted, the preternaturally comfortable Romney has a hard time channeling the restive, mad-as-hell little guy.

Chicago is just not the city people are mad at when they think about why politics makes them angry.

Yet the new Romney line (which isn't really new -- he tried before to make Solyndra an issue, only to have the theme greeted mostly as old news) is not a Sarah Palin-style attack on both parties' supposed crony capitalism and the nest-feathering of Washington elites. Rather, he's framed the problem as one of "Chicago-style politics," a phrase that brings to mind a sort of quaint thuggishness but fails to connect with voters' pervasive anger at Congress and the influence trade. Chicago is just not the city people are mad at when they think about why politics makes them angry.

Even as Romney's campaign was rolling out the "political payoffs" line Monday, the obstacles of turning the Republican nominee into an anti-Washington crusader were evident. The campaign held a conference call for reporters featuring Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser who worked in the George W. Bush White House and runs a major Washington lobbying firm. He branded the problem as one of "Chicago-style politics and Chicago-style economics," the latter a confusing reference that surely was not intended to evoke the "Chicago school" of right-wing economists such as Milton Friedman.

If political favors to major donors are such an issue, Gillsepie was asked, shouldn't the Romney campaign reveal its fundraising bundlers?

Gillespie demurred: "The issue here is not so much the appointments, that kind of thing," he said. "It's the contracts, the subsidies, the loan guarantees, the waivers -- that's what we're going to be focused on. As you know, Governor Romney's contributors are made public. They're disclosed."

In other words: No, Romney will not be revealing his bundlers, something every nominee has done since at least 2000. And thus another potentially potent criticism of the incumbent gets turned once again into a story about what voters still don't know about Mitt Romney.