A few weeks ago, Rupert Murdoch berated the Romney Campaign for not being “real pros” and later accused the Republican presidential nominee of “playing it safe.” But, of course, playing it safe is Mitt Romney’s mantra; a Mormon sense of stoic privacy and his “holier than thou” attitude served him well against a parade of loonies during the primaries. And anyone who has been around a campaign, no matter how large, knows at this point for the candidate to try and be anything other than what he or she is courts disaster. Good examples are Al Gore trying desperately to pivot into “earth tones” or Michael Dukakis attempting to act tough in a tank. Yet, Murdoch has a point. Romney has been strangely defensive of his financial success, how he achieved his wealth, and how he maintains it—and that makes no sense.
It’s as if Romney thinks he can have it both ways; hard sell the private-sector tycoon obviously more qualified to speed up America’s economic recovery with the same bold ideas he instituted in his career and then be evasive on the very practices he’s pitching. This is an uncanny mirror image of 2004 and John Kerry, so far a doppelganger for Romney—bland, rich, out-of-touch New England Ivy Leaguer. Even Kerry tried being photographed in hunting gear to cut into George W. Bush’s “regular guy” routine, as Romney has gone tie-less in jeans standing in front of a variety of macho machinery.
Kerry’s convention speech, laced with military rhetoric, immediately framed his candidacy during an unpopular war and the continued national fear of terrorism as an alternative to a bungling civilian and the architect of an amateurish foreign policy. Once Kerry infused his character into the equation, Karl Rove and the Bush Campaign unleashed a torrent of abuse on it; questioning the Democratic nominee’s tour of duty in Viet Nam and playing over and over his testimony before congress that war crimes were being committed by his fellow soldiers. Soon a private group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ran television ads raising real question about Kerry’s credibility in this arena.
Kerry never defended himself, choosing instead to sheepishly attack the Bush Campaign for practicing dirty tricks with misleading ads and distracting the American electorate from the real issue, mainly that the Bush foreign policy was an abject failure costing the nation blood and treasure for what amounted to basically nothing. And this is exactly what’s happening to Romney right now. His entire argument for being president of the United States is that he is not a regular politician, but a man of business and the free market, while Barack Obama is a lifetime politician and insider whose only solutions come through a broken Washington system that everyone pretty much hates.
It’s the wise move. Romney was a fair to middling governor, whose economic record was by all measures in the lower echelon of states when he left. And if he dares mention Massachusetts then he must address his mandated health care law, and that gets him nowhere. His time working with the Salt Lake City Olympics may add a nice homey story to the narrative, but it’s really his connection with Bain Capital, a company he helped build and what his campaign and many Republican spinners have called a “job creating” enterprise that defines him. And here comes the Obama Campaign kicking the tires, at first bringing up the new third-rail of politics; outsourcing, a reality of business for the past two decades. Outsourcing may be gangbusters in Romney’s beloved private sector, but it is poison in politics. The Obama Campaign has brilliantly, and in many ways deviously, connected those dots. It’s good, clean, hard politics and part of the game, but it’s the way Romney has responded that is curious.
Romney has been apologizing for his wealth and success by skirting his professional history and refiguring his time at Bain Capital, which helped earn him his fortune and the type of reputation that put him in the lofty position to run for president of the United States. When pressed about outsourcing he immediately claimed to have nothing to do with it, as he had already retired, for all intents and purposes admitting that whatever crazy shit those guys were doing from 1999 on he was busying himself in the a wholesome job of “running the Olympics.” Then when the Boston Globe uncovers the man’s title as “sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president” for the years he’d denied having anything to do with it he sends a phalanx of apologists on every news show to claim he was “retroactively retired,” whatever the hell that means.
Then comes the tax return issue.
Why Romney refuses to release a decade’s worth of returns when it is the predominant practice of past nominees is weird, but for a candidate promoting himself as a financial wizard it’s downright insane. Even novices know that by not revealing something—this was the Birthers argument with the current president’s birth certificate for four years, still kept alive by Romney Campaign surrogate, Donald Trump—the understanding is that there is something to hide. Nixon learned this the hard way when he at first battled the courts to keep control of the tapes that led to his impeachment.
Romney even went on network television and openly stated that if the tax returns of the past decade were released his opponents would eviscerate him by distorting the numbers. This goes beyond bad politics; it is character suicide. It puts his candidacy in the crosshairs of the oldest weapon in the books; “Make the bastard deny it.”
What Romney needs to do is stop denying it. He needs to stop running from his resumé. In fact, he needs to embrace it. No one thinks that all of a sudden three months and change from Election Day that Mitt Romney is a champion of the poor or gives a shit about manufacturing jobs or the black caucus or unions or government regulation. Whatever Romney is, and many including this space have yet to actually figure it out, he must let the freak flag fly. Pull the Newt Gingrich line from 1994 about the party being over for freeloaders. Be the hardliner. Many Republican governors won their posts in 2010 with this approach. Shit, the guy who runs this state, a huge star in the party, is busy trying to fistfight people on the boardwalk and he’s getting a primetime speech at the convention.
Romney represents his party, much like Barack Obama did during his general election campaign of 2008. He smartly ignored Democratic pundits and did not get in the mud with Hillary Clinton, as Romney avoided any goofiness with Rich Santorum and the rest of the bunch this past spring. When Romney did go hard to the right, something he was uncomfortable doing, he stammered out weak base-baiting crap like “self-deportation” or nonsense about contraception that sunk his chances at cutting into the Hispanic and young women’s vote. His party chose him over those guys, and whatever it is that beats in the man’s heart has to emerge quickly and defiantly to provide the broadest choice in November. What appears to be happening is he’s waiting out the clock, hoping to freeze the ball until the fourth quarter with the hope that no one notices he’s…well…he’s whatever the hell he’s scared for us to find out he is.
Rupert Murdoch knows something about image. His Fox News has restructured forever the idea of using the news to reframe the narrative. Mitt Romney should heed his warnings. Not being Barack Obama will serve him as well as not being George W. Bush served John Kerry.