Frank Rich on the National Circus: Romney Neutralizes His Own Super-PACs

Bob Perry, Foster Friess and David Koch.
Bob Perry, Foster Friess and David Koch. Photo: Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle/AP, Andrew Goodman/Getty Images, Marc Stamas/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with assistant editor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: why the super-PACs have fizzled, Paul Ryan’s long game, and Mitt’s Hispandering.

We’re now in late September, and the summer’s ad barrages have done little to change the polls. Super-PAC money was one of the biggest stories of this election and possibly its determining factor. Was the expected impact of the sugar daddies overhyped? Will their money play a major role in the campaign’s final six weeks?
It may turn out that many, including me, were more worried about the post–Citizens United wave of money from the Kochs and Adelsons than we had to be because (a) Romney proved an even weaker candidate than anyone imagined (which is saying something), and (b) he’s so weak that those pulling the strings of the super-PACs (e.g., Karl Rove) may in desperation start shifting money away from the national ticket to salvage troubled GOP Senate candidates. The most important political story so far this week was on the front page of Monday’s Wall Street Journal: It cites example after example of pro-Romney super-PAC expenditures failing to get the job done. Obama is up nearly ten points in Michigan and eight points in Pennsylvania even though right-wing super-PACS have spent $18 million on TV spots in those two states (more than twice the amount spent by the Obama campaign and a pro-Obama super-PAC combined). In North Carolina, the race is still close despite nearly $34 million in pro-Romney spending there (nearly 50 percent more than Obama forces have spent). Democratic Senate candidates are ahead in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia despite similarly huge pro-GOP super-PAC outlays in those races. As I wrote in my piece about attack ads, the quality of the ads matters, and Romney’s ever-shifting campaign strategy may have made it impossible for anyone on his side to come up with a devastating “Daisy” ad. And at this late point, the audience may be too desensitized to respond to one in any case. (Just go to a swing state and turn on the television for an hour; the volume is shocking.) Money’s biggest role in the final weeks may be on the ground, not on the air — an advantage for the better-organized Obama.

One key campaign player who many expected to have a bigger role is Paul Ryan. On 60 Minutes Sunday night, Romney shot back at a Scott Pelley question about Ryan’s Medicare plan by snapping, “I’m the guy running for president, not him.” Is Mitt having buyer’s remorse? And given his disastrous last two weeks, why not unleash Ryan to make his case?
I doubt Mitt regrets picking Ryan; he needed him to nail down his own base, and what was the alternative, Tim Pawlenty? (Who has now moved on to his rightful calling — as a lobbyist.) But even before the GOP convention ended, prominent voices on the right were wailing that Ryan had been castrated by the Romney campaign. Ryan’s acceptance speech was largely Republican Muzak rather than the Ayn Randian exercise in “big ideas” the faithful was craving. That he remains muzzled would be in keeping with the Romney campaign’s conviction that the tiny sliver of undecided voters would be frightened away by hard-line conservative ideology. A further indignity for Ryan is that his campaign minder is now Dan Senor, the mastermind behind Mitt’s hapless foreign policy tour during the Olympics. But no one should count Ryan out post-2012. He may look like Eddie Munster, but he’s the GOP’s Sammy Glick, ambitious as hell. It may fit his own career plans to be seen and heard as little as possible in a Romney defeat. As a Republican political operative in Iowa told the Times last week, “If Ryan wants to run for national office again, he’ll probably have to wash the stench of Romney off of him.” Looks like Ryan is already lathering up!

Mitt still can’t escape the subject of taxes. Everyone seems a little perplexed as to why his promised release of his 2011 tax returns was accompanied by a notarized summary of his 1990-2009 returns. The former Romney strategist Alex Castellanos said he “thought this was an April Fool’s joke.” Why did Mitt do this now?
Apparently he thought he was being clever dumping this stuff on the press on a Friday afternoon, the traditional time for burying bad news. He seems to have forgotten, however, that this particular Friday came at the end of a week when the country was focused on the Boca video in which he insulted the 47 percent of the population that (in his formulation) doesn’t pay taxes. Who can explain why this campaign does anything the way it does? In any case, the so-called summaries of Romney’s tax returns raise more questions than they answer — a good six weeks’ worth, I’d say.

Obama and Romney conducted two “shadow debates” last week. They both appeared on 60 Minutes, and both visited a Univision forum in Miami. We’ve been saturated by this campaign for months. Can either candidate say or do anything at this point to change the minds of voters? And did you see any evidence of that in either set of appearances?
Answer to both questions: not much. The first “real” debate — next Wednesday — may well be Romney’s last chance to move any minds. What we learned about Mitt on 60 Minutes is that, incredibly, he still thinks he can get away with avoiding all specifics, not just just about his own tax returns but also about his most fundamental policy bullet points: what tax deductions and exemptions he’d eliminate; what federal departments and programs he’d cut to offset the red ink implicit in his promised tax cuts; and any fine print of his ideas for immigration and Social Security reform. If he really thinks he can get away with this Wednesday night, he’s delusional. What we mainly learned about Obama is that he looks exhausted and had better rest up. But in one answer to Steve Kroft, the president did suggest he’s ready to stop Romney from skating away from the specifics of his saber-rattling foreign policy: “If Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so.” If this line of Obama attack is not focus-group tested, I’d be very surprised. Perhaps the Obama camp is hoping to spring its own “Daisy” ad.

The Romney Univision appearance sprouted two unflattering stories: that he was wearing really bad orange makeup and that his campaign packed the audience with supporters. Both made him seem almost comically desperate. Any thoughts?
Romney can dye his skin brown in reverse emulation of Michael Jackson and he still is going to lose the Hispanic vote by a margin so huge that it’s hard to see how he can make up the losses elsewhere. What I don’t understand is why his campaign doesn’t bus in a Latino claque to every campaign appearance, not just the Univision forum. With the exception of that appearance and this week’s speech before the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, every Mitt audience registers as all-white on the evening news. Hiring Latino extras for every Romney rally — and, while they’re at it, African-American and Asian-American extras, too — might be campaign money well spent.

Frank Rich: Mitt Neutralizes His Own Super-PACs