After Many Gaffes, Debates Are Romney’s Last Stand
Policy + Politics

After Many Gaffes, Debates Are Romney’s Last Stand

Reuters/The Fiscal Times

At a time when Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney needs to be closing the narrow gap in the polls  with President Obama, his gaffes over the past two weeks have only compounded the problem—and risk putting the presidency out of reach. It will take a dramatic and swift turnaround—one the campaign promised would begin on Monday—to shift the momentum in the Republican’s favor.

A weekend report in Politico about discord among Romney’s top campaign aides, and the subsequent surfacing of a video of Romney telling wealthy donors last May that the 47 percent of Americans who “pay no income tax” are victims living off government support, add up to a devastating picture of the would-be president less than 50 days before the election. Romney had planned to revitalize his campaign and shift the focus back to the economy this week after the embarrassing debacle stemming from his ham-handed attacks over how the administration has managed unrest in the Middle East.

These fresh revelations underscore some of the worst criticism raised by Democrats and Republicans alike about his core beliefs and skills as a politician and government leader, making it increasingly hard to overturn the sense in the zeitgeist that Romney—as portrayed last weekend by “Saturday Night Live”—might as well be Obama’s secret weapon.

Romney defended his remarks captured by a hidden video camera—and released by the grandson of former president Jimmy Carter--as largely pertaining to campaign strategy. “We were, of course, talking about a campaign and how he’s going to get close to half the vote, I’m going to get half the vote, approximately, I hope,” he told Fox News in an interview that aired Tuesday, adding, “I want to get 50.1 percent or more.”

His team has scrambled with damage control, denying any discord in the campaign, writing off his comments at the May fundraiser as inartful, and loudly insisting the former Massachusetts governor remains on track to win in November. But almost nothing they say has diminished these three troubling political realities:

  • Romney has bumped up against a glass ceiling in the polls. Romney has trailed Obama since October 2011, according to the average of head-to-head polls by RealClearPolitics. Among the seven decisive battleground states, Romney currently leads in just one: North Carolina.
  • Success in business does not always translate into success in politics. Romney vowed to run the government the way a CEO would run a Fortune 500 company, but his own corporate-style campaign organization has stumbled badly – especially in the planning of the national convention and Romney’s acceptance speech.  Senior strategist Stuart Stevens has alienated many members of the campaign’s  Boston brain trust, and the long knives are out for him.
  • Romney is stuck in the worst of all possible worlds -- saddled with the label of either Gordon Gekko or Panderer-in-Chief.   If he spoke from the heart in his surreptitiously recorded comments to backers in Boca Raton, Fla.,  while he was still locking up the GOP nomination, then he probably is the disdainful capitalist who once callously said he wasn’t concerned about the very poor because they had a social safety net to protect them. Or, if he was simply imprecise and his statements don’t reflect his philosophy–as he explained to reporters Monday evening– then he opens himself to being a shameless chameleon eager to curry favor with the GOP base any way he can. Neither label is positive.

All of this adds to the pressure Romney faces with three presidential debates in October and the blitz of campaign advertising in the run-up to the election. Even before the release of the video, a spate of polls show Romney’s support has suffered because voters already view him as a stilted and unsympathetic patrician. Despite his public speeches, interviews and ads, he has not convinced the majority of the country that he truly cares about the middle class. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other GOP rivals during the primary season charged that Romney engaged in “vulture capitalism” that led to the destruction or outsourcing of many middle-class factory and manufacturing jobs.

Obama leads Romney 56 percent to 37 percent on the question of who would do more to help the middle class, a split that has held relatively steady for the past three months based on a survey released last week by The New York Times/CBS News. The same poll shows that most voters think the president understands their problems and tells them what he genuinely believes, while less than half of those surveyed view Romney as similarly empathetic and sincere.

Perhaps most devastating, more than 53 percent of respondents have said since February that Romney’s policies favor the rich. Other surveys by Monmouth University and Fox News show his favorability remains just below the critical 50 percent threshold.

No doubt those numbers were driven by TV ads attacking Romney’s record as the head of the private equity firm Bain Capital during the primary and general election season, in addition to the Obama team hammering him over the decision to not release any tax returns before 2010. Some Romney campaign aides have complained off the record to reporters that the campaign should have responded with ads of their own to minimize the damage.

But now those numbers will likely become worse after Romney claimed in the leaked video that his “job” is not to “worry” about those who pay no federal income tax, since “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” For a candidate whose own effective tax rate is lower than many Americans at 13.9 percent, his words only chummed the waters.

Ari Fleisher, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush, noted on Twitter that Romney had basically slammed the core of the middle class—whose tax burden was reduced in part through the lower rates and deductions introduced by his boss in 2001—that the candidate must win-over.

“A family of 4 making $50k can pay no inc. tax thanks 2deductions/credits,” Fleisher quickly tweeted after the video was released. “It's not just the poor & seniors.”

The video obtained and published by the liberal outlet MotherJones on Monday also undermines a key selling point for Romney—that he’s a data-driven numbers cruncher who can work his magic on the federal government.

Throughout his talk, he repeatedly misrepresents important stats, claiming, for example, that half of new college graduates cannot find work. The actual unemployment rate for all Americans between the ages of 16 to 24—regardless of education level—is 17.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While Romney can claim that roughly 47 percent of the country doesn’t pay income taxes, “even this statistic is misleading because it counts older households, who are often retirees, and young individuals, even if they are still in school,” the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project concluded in a report last April.

Rather than ideology or even politics, it’s changing demographics and the 2008 recession that explain the composition of the income tax burden. “As the U.S. population ages into the future and a greater proportion of Americans reach the retirement age, it is inevitable that a growing percentage of the overall population will pay no income or payroll taxes,” the Hamilton Project report concludes.

One of the more baffling aspects of the Romney campaign is the amount of disarray and internal backbiting that usually becomes public very early in the campaign season or  after the election. According to the POLITICO article, Romney—an executive obsessed with tables of organization and PowerPoint presentations—created a team with few lines of authority or accountability – and seven distinct power centers tugging against one another.

As mishaps have piled up, Stuart Stevens, a veteran GOP campaign and media strategist, has taken the brunt of the blame for the unwieldy structure. A joke among frustrated Republicans is that the Romney campaign badly needs a consultant from Bain & Co. to strengthen it. Coupled with the video, the campaign squabbling has prevented Romney from having the conversation he would prefer to have with the country.

“This is ultimately a question about direction for the country,” he said while defending his statements in the video. “Do you believe in a government-centered society that provides more and more benefits? Or do you believe instead in a free-enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams?”