the national interest

Mitt Romney Gets Angry

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (C) talks with campaign advisors Stuart Stevens (L) and Eric Fehrnstrom on a chartered airplane after departing Des Moines, Iowa, January 4, 2012 while en route to Manchester, New Hampshire.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The primary goal of President Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s business career is to define him as a self-interested financier and thus to soften him up for attacks on the Ryan budget later on. But it also seems to have accomplished a secondary, and perhaps unintended, objective: to rattle Romney and his campaign.

Team Romney has flailed this way and that looking for a response on Bain. Yesterday it unleashed John Sununu to float wild personal attacks on Obama. McKay Coppins reports that this was no one-off. Romney plans to make these sorts of attacks a central part of his campaign:

Romney has always been careful to hedge his tough digs at Obama with a civil nod toward the president’s moral character: “He’s a nice guy,” the Republican has often said. “He just has no idea how the private economy works.” But Tuesday’s speech included no such hedge — and one campaign adviser said there’s a reason for that.

[Romney] has said Obama’s a nice fellow, he’s just in over his head,” the adviser said. “But I think the governor himself believes this latest round of attacks that have impugned his integrity and accused him of being a felon go so far beyond that pale that he’s really disappointed. He believes it’s time to vet the president. He really hasn’t been vetted; McCain didn’t do it.”

The apparent plan is to mutter darkly about Chicago and drug use and sundry other biographical details that conservatives believe they wrongly shied away from four years ago.

As Coppins notes, this would amount to a full reversal of the old Romney strategy. The old plan, you may recall, was premised on targeting the sliver of swing voters in the middle who like Obama, want him to succeed, but believe he has failed to turn the economy around. Thus Romney devised a message targeted right at the gap between Obama’s good favorable ratings and less impressive job approval ratings. It was a good plan.

Does it make sense to abandon that plan to circulate dark mutterings about Obama’s past? No, it does not. The point of disparaging Obama’s character is to paint him as a cultural alien unfit for the presidency. More of this theme may or may not have helped in 2008. But you can’t do that effectively against somebody who is already President of the United States. Obama has spent four years being photographed and filmed in the Rose Garden and saluting the troops and waving from Air Force One. Hard-core conservatives may still regard him as an alien figure, but this strategy stands zero chance of working with middle America. All it can do is chip away at Romney’s personal standing, which (in an electorate with settled views about the incumbent) is the one real variable at play here. Which, of course, is part of the reason why Romney was so careful to insist that Obama was a good guy in the first place.

The plan floated to Coppins makes no sense as strategy. Nor does it reflect any deeper truth – Romney won the GOP nomination by destroying his opponents one after another, then smirking at them when they complained about the tactics. He and his staff may be furious that Obama is painting Romney, a figure who seems to inspire worship from the entire Romney operation including the candidate, as less than a model for the rest of us to emulate. I suspect that sheer personal pique, in combination with the natural aggressive instincts of Romney’s key advisers, is driving the macho talk from Boston today. But I also suspect that cooler heads will soon prevail.

Mitt Romney Gets Angry