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?
The explanations in each case are slightly different, but point less to the operatives around Romney—who are neither dumb nor blind—than to their boss. Regarding Bain, the candidate has apparently been in some state of denial about the degree of vulnerability his record there presents. To him, the equation is dead simple: private sector = good. (And the campaign has further been hampered by the press-shy executives now running Bain, whose allergy to the spotlight, as Mark Halperin pointed out recently in Time, has ironically only increased the glare.) Regarding his taxes, Romney has been at once less helpful and more adamant with his advisers—and more clueless about the potential fallout. Those around him say that, even with the shitstorm his position has unleashed, he remains unyielding in his insistence that two years of returns are all he’s willing to make public.
The depth to which Romney has dug in his heels has naturally provoked a welter of speculation about what in God’s name is in the returns—and just how bad it could be. That the levels of income will be stratospherically (some would say obscenely) high is taken as a given. That there are some years in which Romney paid an extremely low effective tax rate—lower, maybe much lower, than the 13.9 percent rate he paid in 2010—is quite likely. And then there is the most problematic possibility: that the Swiss and Cayman accounts that we already know about are just the tip of an iceberg, one that would suggest an aggressive, arguably unpatriotic pattern of tax-avoidance.
My own guess, however, is that apart from one or more of these elements, what the Romney tax returns would lay bare is the extent of his donations to his church. In this case and all others, charitable donations are something to be proud of, an entirely honorable thing. But for a candidate who has taken extravagant pains to avoid discussion of his supremely prominent role in contemporary Mormonism, the idea of a wave of news stories detailing the tens of millions of dollars that he has given to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—surely making him among its most generous funders in the modern era—must be a kind of nightmare. The kind that would open a can of worms that has little to do with money and everything to do with an aspect of his life that might humanize him and be reassuring or even inspiring to millions of Americans, but that he evidently regards as a strict no-go zone.
One sign that this issue is weighing on Romney’s mind was the performance that his wife, Ann, turned in on Good Morning America last week. In an uncomfortable exchange with Robin Roberts about her husband’s position on the tax returns, Mrs. Romney said, “You should really look at where Mitt has led his life and where he’s been financially. He’s been a very generous person. We give 10 percent of our income to our church every year. Do you think that is the kind of person that is trying to hide things?”
The rhetorical question at the end of that quote is, of course, a non sequitur. And along with Mrs. Romney’s unusually agitated demeanor on the show—she is typically the best and most effective surrogate the campaign has on its side—it suggested that, far more than Bain, the question of the tax returns is getting under the Romneys’ collective skin. That is certainly how it was seen in Chicago. And that is why, though some combination of Team Romney’s attacks on Obama, the Olympics, and the nominee’s selection of his running mate may have the effect of shifting the subject, the effect will only be temporary. For beyond what Chicago is gleaning from its polling and focus groups, the president’s people see in the issue of the tax returns a way to get inside his head.
“One of the things we learned during the Republican primaries is that you can rattle Romney more easily than people think,” says a senior Obama strategist. “And when he’s rattled is when he makes mistakes.” The members of the Romney campaign are perfectly familiar with the tactic of messing with a rival’s mind; they did it to Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum in succession, all to no small effect. To survive what’s coming will require of them a kind of nimbleness notably absent in the past two weeks. But more than that, it will require a recognition that the tactics being used against them are as much psy-ops as class warfare.
This story appeared in the July, 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.