Frank Rich on the National Circus: Romney Is the Only One Playing ‘Hide-and-Seek’

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LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 20:  Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop in front of vacant stores of the Valley Plaza shopping center on July 20, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  Romney criticized President Barack Obama's handling of the economy during the brief campaign event.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Photo: Kevork Djansezian/2011 Getty Images

Yesterday Romney accused the president of running a "hide-and-seek" campaign. Is claiming that we still don't know the "real Barack Obama" a winning play?
This tactic tells us little about Obama but a lot about the continued haplessness of the Romney campaign even as he wins the nomination. “Hide-and-seek” was chosen for no other reason than it’s a three-syllable children’s game that Romney’s handlers hope will vanquish the three-syllable children’s toy “Etch A Sketch” from campaign rhetoric — just as they hope that Obama’s “hot mike” gaffe will make everyone forget their “Etch A Sketch” gaffe. The only problem is that “Etch A Sketch” perfectly and perhaps permanently summed up Romney’s biggest failing as a candidate — his utter lack of a spine. “Hide-and-seek,” by contrast, is a political non sequitur when applied to Obama. The president’s biggest critics may think he’s a socialist or a snob or an appeaser or whatever, but no one thinks he’s “hiding” anything unless it’s the hard-core crazies who think he’s hiding his “real” birth certificate.

Romney’s message seems to be one sustained attack on Obama. When is his positive campaign vision going to kick in?
Does anyone, including in the Republican party, know what it is? Romney has outsourced what upbeat message he has to Francis Scott Key, Katherine Lee Bates, Irving Berlin and the other deceased lyricists who wrote the patriotic anthems he mangles in public. Maybe the time has come for him to solicit some fresh ideas from his campaign's official troubadour, Kid Rock.

Romney’s “hide-and-seek” speech was preceded by Obama’s attack on the Republican budget that passed the House. The president called the budget “social Darwinism” — is this a strategy the Democrats can keep up throughout the general election?
“Social Darwinism” that budget clearly is, for it enshrines two  principles: More tax cuts for the rich, and the gutting of programs that might benefit those who have not reached the pinnacle of economic evolution. Not just Medicare and Medicaid, but Head Start, Pell grants, and federal regulation of toxins as various as derivatives on Wall Street and “pink slime” in food. The House budget is a Pandora’s box of potential horrors that Democrats can roll out throughout 2012. And that political task is made easier by the fact that the Republicans, including Romney, are leaving the details blank, allowing voters (with Democratic prodding) to let their imaginations and fears run riot. Romney actually told The Weekly Standard that he would not “give you a list right now” of what federal departments and programs he would eliminate as President — and he said this just two weeks before he had the audacity to accuse Obama of playing "hide-and-seek." Freud had a term for this — projection.

What does it say about Romney’s psyche that he called the House’s budget “marvelous”?
That it is impervious to the American language as spoken by 99 percent of his fellow citizens. This is his best locution since he described himself as “severely conservative.” Whatever else happens in the 2012 campaign, one thing is certain. We’re going to stop hearing ridicule from the right about Obama’s use of a TelePrompTer. Romney is using two TelePrompTers at speeches, and yet he still yields a risible soundbite (or two) nearly every week.

Will it help or hurt Obama that the GOP budget’s author, Paul Ryan, is a relative newcomer to the national stage? Even Americans who know his name probably only have a vague idea of who he is other than a "Wisconsin budget wonk."
Ryan is too dull to serve as a political piñata — he’s “9-9-9” without the charisma. Should Romney pick him for Veep, as Washington’s current “whispering” has it, the GOP will at least have an all-white-male ticket in perfect sync with the party’s demographics. The bland leading the bland.

Isn’t that precisely why Romney shouldn’t choose Ryan?
You’d think. Then again, it’s hard to imagine how any vice-presidential choice could undo his and his party’s poor standing with two minorities, African-Americans and Hispanics, and one majority, women. This week Romney became clenched, awkward, and terse when asked to expound on the Mormon church’s egregious and tardy history in awarding blacks equal status to whites. He has endorsed Arizona’s Draconian anti-immigration law, which would punish Latinos for the crime of acting or looking “Latino,” and he has given the nation the concept of “self-deportation,” which some Hispanic voters might rightfully mistake for “self-flagellation," or perhaps “self-annihilation.” Romney has also endorsed the so-called Blunt Amendment, and called for the elimination of Title X and Planned Parenthood funding — which would collectively deny poor and working women alike coverage not just for contraception but for cancer screening, among other health-care essentials.

Does that mean it is too late for Ann Romney’s recently stated antidote for her husband’s steep polling decline among women voters — that the campaign “unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out”?
To quote The Producers, “When you’ve got it, flaunt it.” An unzipped Mitt would certainly make everyone forget about Seamus the dog.

On the most recent Mad Men, a character who is an aide for John Lindsay referred to George Romney as "a clown." A bunch of conservatives and Mitt's son Tagg got worked up about it. Is everything going to be a subject of feigned outrage from now until November?
In a word, yes ... Let’s not forget, by the way, that just twenty years ago, the sitting Vice-President, Dan Quayle, tried to drum up support for the Republican ticket’s reelection campaign by expressing outrage about a fictional television sitcom character, Murphy Brown, who offended his notions of traditional womanhood. Quayle was last seen playing golf in Sunbelt oblivion while the actress who played Murphy, Candice Bergen, opened last week on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.