Imagine for a moment that you make a living as a top-shelf national political consultant. (We will pause here briefly to let you quaff some Pepto-Bismol to quell the incipient waves of nausea.) I approach you about a friend of mine who is considering a presidential run. The guy has the makings of a dream candidate. He is smart, rich, and handsome, with a terrific head of hair, a résumé replete with success in the private sector, a fantastic family, and a squeaky-clean personal life. There’s one problem, though: My pal finds it impossible to talk publicly in a confident, compelling, human way about the things (besides his wife and kids) that matter most to him—his moneymaking acumen and his religious faith. In fact, he gets tied up in knots whenever either topic comes up. So whaddaya say, Super Strategist? How big an impediment will that be to his performance on the big stage?
Even if you don’t know all that much about politics, the answer should be intuitively obvious: a huge one. And to see why, you need look no further than the case of Willard Mitt Romney. For the past two weeks, Romney has been pummeled relentlessly by President Obama and his allies over the Republican nominee’s tenure at Bain Capital and his refusal to release more than two years (the second still forthcoming) of his tax returns. An array of Romney’s fellow Republicans have joined in the pounding on the latter issue, and much of the GOP political class has begun questioning the judgment, toughness, and elementary competence of the campaign team surrounding their party’s standard-bearer.
No doubt, the squad of sharpies up in Boston deserve a measure of blame for what’s transpired. But the problems bedeviling Romney are not mainly tactical but psychological, resting with the candidate himself: in his odd and surprising squeamishness in discussing his ginormous wealth and his reign at Bain—and also, I suspect, in his famous aversion to talking about his devotion to Mormonism (about which more momentarily). All of which is why, try as Boston might to change the subject, the issues of Bain and Romney’s taxes are not going away. The Obamans firmly believe that they’ve hit a nerve, and like a bunch of sadistic dentists, they plan on drilling away at that sucker until the patient/victim screams.
How much actual damage the past two weeks have done to Romney is hard to judge at this point. His handlers were heartened by a New York Times–CBS News poll released last week that found their guy ahead 47–46, a statistical dead heat and a result in line with most every major national poll over the past few months. The Romney folks further point out that the Obama forces have been outspending them dramatically in the swing states, and yet polling there, too, shows no appreciable shift in the president’s favor. The Obamans counter that their polling and focus-grouping show that perceptions of Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat who doesn’t share the values or understand the struggles of ordinary voters—and, worse, as an evasive shape-shifter with something to hide—are sinking in and hardening in a way that will be difficult for their rival to shake come the fall.
Whichever side proves right in the end, however, what no one sane disputes is that the past two weeks have been hellish for Romney—and certainly nothing resembling how he and his team intended to spend them. (Bad jobs numbers? What bad jobs numbers?) What’s equally clear is that their handling of the twin attacks on Bain and taxes has been so bad that it qualifies as political malpractice. In every campaign Romney has waged, starting with his 1994 Massachusetts Senate run against Ted Kennedy, his record as a businessman has been central to his persona and to the dynamics of the race. This record has conferred on Romney both assets and liabilities. Thus the central strategic imperatives of his bid for the White House in 2012 were obvious from the get-go (and, really, for nearly two decades beforehand): to maximize the former on offense and minimize the latter on defense.
Yet even with all the time in the world to prepare a game plan, Romney and his operation have been awful at both ends of the floor. On offense, the candidate has yet to offer a potent, persuasive argument—or, in truth, any real argument at all—as to how his experience at Bain would translate into policies that would help the U.S. economy. And on defense, Team Romney has been shockingly unprepared to fend off the inevitable fusillades from Chicago. How can it be that, as of this writing, the campaign still hasn’t explained (or been able to explain) who was running Bain from 1999 to 2002? How is it possible that Romney didn’t instruct his blind trustee not to stash his dough in Swiss and Cayman Islands bank accounts? Or that, knowing full well that his tax returns would be a target, the campaign didn’t release a decent number of years’ worth of them last summer, when the hits he would’ve taken would have been far less consequential?