On 'Swiftboating' Mitt Romney

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.