Thursday, February 2, 2012

Romney as a General Election Candidate

Over at Plum Line, my post today is a speculative one about Romney's strengths and weaknesses as a general election candidate. I've been saying he's mostly a generic Republican candidate, but I find some pluses and minuses around that -- with the strong caveat, of course, that the out-party candidate against an incumbent president just isn't all that important.

I downplayed over there the issues having to do with Romney's wealth and his business background...perhaps I should explain that a bit. My feeling is that every presidential candidate brings baggage to the campaign which is available for the other side to exploit. Figure out what the average level of baggage is, and that's what I'd compare Romney with when assessing him as a candidate. So: is it awkward to have a rich guy as your nominee during a deep recession? Sure. Does Romney seem to have some trouble learning how to talk about his own wealth on the campaign trail? Yes, that too. But is it more baggage than Barack Obama or John McCain had in 2008, or John Kerry had in 2004, or Al Gore and George W. Bush had in 2000? I think it's hard to make a case for that.

So I'm not saying that Romney won't be attacked over these things, or even that those attacks won't lose some votes for him (remembering that all such effects, of course, are only around the margins). I'm just saying it's always something, and so far what we know about Romney's wealth and business background doesn't strike me as above par.

17 comments:

  1. I'm not registering at WaPo, so here's a comment on your post there. You said:

    He’s a far more disciplined candidate than, say, John McCain or Bob Dole. He’s going to do his homework on the issues and should mostly avoid the sort of embarrassing policy gaffes that plagued George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan

    I think the last couple of months have proved this wrong. OK, maybe Mitt is more disciplined than McCain or Dole; maybe he's more articulate than W. or Reagan.

    But that's not saying much. The "disciplined" and "focused" Mitt, after all, has been saying things on a daily basis that make GOP consultants and pundits want to slap their foreheads.

    These little slip-ups, added together, have big consequences. Mitt's unfavorables skyrocket, (especially among independents) with every gaffe that pops out of his mouth.

    And with a slowly-but-steadily-improving economy (which, again, is the most likely scenario in November!) that could be enough to sink Romney.

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    1. I disagree. I think it's primarily opponents who play up gaffes. Independents and your own side give you a pass if it doesn't get too bad, which it did for Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Most of us understand fallibility.

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  2. Similarly, I'm not so swayed by the Dole comparison. First, was Dole *that* undisciplined? I don't think so. Losing a presidential campaign isn't likely to make anyone look suave, and Dole had the advantage over Romney that he was a genuinely impressive person -- and I don't mean that to be the slam on Romney that it sounds. Romney's a successful businessman and one-time governor, period. Dole was a more formidable guy in most ways. (I guess that's true of McCain too, but -- ehhh, McCain.) Anyway. I feel like just the same way that you say Romney's faults are about par or below par, I think that you have to adjust for context. Romney is a smart, careful, disciplined guy, but he's also the kind of guy who's pared down his personality to suit his aims, or the modern media context, or whatever. When you shave that much off, inability to resonate with voters on an emotional level, or difficulties about articulating your impression of the role that salary plays in our country -- I don't know, I think those things mean quite a lot. It's a bit like saying that Glidden Autumn Chestnut is a safer bet for a dining room than the Mona Lisa -- it may be true, but it's not exactly saying anything positive about the Glidden. Basically I take your post as arguing not so much that Romney doesn't have big weaknesses as saying, watch out -- Romney is a disciplined candidate who knows his policy details. It's worth reminding us of that, but I still have trouble seeing Romney excel on the campaign trail, unless there's some calculus in the electorate we don't know about yet -- (or the economy falters yada yada).

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    1. I agree with you about Dole as an accomplished Senator (and a war hero), but yes, he was *that* undisciplined. Couldn't stick to his prepared speech, would change campaign itinerary on the fly...very much not a Romney-type robocandidate.

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    2. I get your point, but I think the 1996 campaign did something to Dole that nobody really anticipated, he wasn't cut out for it. If you compare Dole *as he was perceived in February 1996* to McCain at the same point or Romney right now, I'm not entirely sure most people would instinctively lump him in with McCain. By the end of the campaign, he had more or less unraveled and it had loosened the garrulous, weirdo Dole not that many people knew was there. So in that sense it's a bit like saying, the 2012 SF Giants were a lot more disciplined than the 1993 Mets (the Clorox Mets) -- it's not a fair comparison, we haven't played any games yet.

      Beyond that, PA Politico captured the true thrust of my point better than I did -- Dole wasn't made for a cable-TV type campaign, but he exerted a lot more good qualities than Romney does, gave people a reason to vote for him. It's not clear to me that Romney has the ability to make anyone actually get passionate about him, and that counts for something. He has few negative characteristics, but also few positive characteristics, in the ways that count in campaigns.

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  3. But is it more baggage than Barack Obama or John McCain had in 2008, or John Kerry had in 2004, or Al Gore and George W. Bush had in 2000? I think it's hard to make a case for that.

    No it's easy. Here you go:

    Whether, as Rev. Wright said, America's chickens had come home to roost on 9/11 was not a central or even peripheral issue in the 2008 election. Meanwhile the tax rates paid by the rich, whether predatory finance is good or bad for the economy, and income equality are going to be key issues in 2012. Mitt Romney's baggage ties in directly to the 2012 election. Barack Obama's baggage in 2008 did not.

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  4. I agree with you that he's not a shockingly weak candidate like Gingrich would be, but I think he's worse than you think. Here's why:

    You've correctly identified Romney's weaknesses and I would agree that, by themselves, they are no worse than the weaknesses of Kerry, Gore, or Dole. Romney's additional problem is that he doesn't have any compelling positive rationale behind his candidacy. Kerry was the war vet who wanted to end the Iraq War, Dole was the war vet/elder statesman who was supposedly more responsible than the filandering Bill Clinton, and Gore was the VP following a historic economic expansion and widely viewed as a policy wonk. So what's Romney's case beyond just the idea that Obama has been a bad president? It's not that he was such a great governor of Mass. He's running away from that. It's not that he has an inspiring personal story (at least we haven't heard it yet). Basically, Mitt Romney is running as a rich guy who knows best about the economy because rich guys do business. Not very compelling. Sometimes, when thinking about Romeny's recent verbal slips like the one about firing people or not caring about the poor, it occurs to me that these really aren't gaffes, they are his message. He wants laissez-faire economics and no government help for the poor. He's quite clear about it. That's why I think Romney's campaign is super-lame but, hey, time will tell, right?

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  5. I want to add one other point. The fact that Romney is running a vacuous campaign at this point won't stop the political press from taking him seriously, as I think we've already seen. Expect the Romney people to push a lot of stories about how tactically brilliant they are, how their sheer cunning has Obama on the ropes. Political journalists who think that government is one big PR operation will eat that stuff up. Rebpublicans, more than anyone know that just acting like you're winning gets you halfway there.

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  6. IMHO, lack of baggage is highly overrated as an asset of a Presidential candidate. Following Martin's open, sure Dole was an impressive fellow, but in the past 50 years, which Presidential candidate had the most impressive personal backstory? The answer is..... George McGovern. How'd that work out for him, either during the '72 election or in the decades of post-mortems?

    I also have a similar reaction to PA Politico re: Romney's gaffes. Specifically, not all gaffes are created equal in the perception of the electorate. Some gaffes are pretty obviously just stupid things people say because people routinely say stupid things (e.g. Obama and the 57 states). Other gaffes are inferred to reflect things about the candidates, things you wouldn't ordinarily discover in the highly-sanitized, overmanaged, focus-grouped era of modern campaigns.

    To the extent Romney is a blank slate, that's probably a reflection of how a modern professional campaign is intentionally run. So perhaps voters look for moments "off the grid" to get a glimpse of the man behind the mask. Romney's "off the grid" incidents couldn't possibly paint a more unfavorable picture, given the negatives from which he is surely attempting to run away.

    When you're a candidate trying to run from the image of being a particularly voracious corporate raider shark, it probably doesn't help the cause to mention that you like being able to fire people, or that the poor will always be with us (whoop de do!), or you have trouble coughing up your tax returns...

    ...in summary, when Romney screws up, he tends to reveal a picture of Bad Romney that his campaign is surely doing everything in its power to suppress.

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  7. Just occurs to me that Romney is sort of the Presidential Candidate equivalent of Tim Tebow as NFL Quarterback. Likeable story, goes down easy, but with troubling aspects only apparent when you scratch beneath the surface.

    In Tebow's case, we're fans of him for his faith and humble demeanor; we like the fact that he is respectful and respectable. Then we watch him play, and we think about his self-described epic work ethic, and we realize that said work ethic has apparently been dedicated to learning to throw a football accurately for at least a decade, and yet he remains not much better at the task than we would be, though our own preparation has consisted of little more than tryptophan and beer-soaked touch football games on Thanksgiving afternoons.

    With Romney, he is the Near Perfect Candidate, who has been Professionally Preparing to be President for Many Years, all so much more palatable than those other clowns in the Republican Primary. And yet, as part of that preparation (at least half a decade in his case, though maybe like Tebow, a decade or more), his highly-skilled handlers must surely have told him, countless times, to consciously avoid looking like Gordon Gecko. For God's sake man, those handlers must have said to Romney endlessly, if you can just not render yourself Gordon Gecko, the thing's a cakewalk.

    So who does Romney sound like in every extemp moment? Uh huh, Gordon Gecko. WTF is up with that? Romney's the serious candidate? At a certain level, the repeated Gecko-isms would be like Michele Bachman finishing every question with "...and another thing, unrepentant gays are sinners bound for hell." Or Ron Paul saying screw the unlucky poor.

    Honestly, Romney's lack of discipline around his vulnerabilities is shocking for the 'disciplined' candidate, kind of like Tebow's lack of ability to accurately throw is shocking for a guy who has practiced umpteen hours to become an NFL QB.

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    1. This Tebow comparison is brilliant. Well done.

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  8. WBWJH

    What baggage would Jesus have?

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  9. "maybe he's more articulate than W. or Reagan."

    Errr, one of these things is not like the other. Reagan was easily the most articulate Presidential candidate I can remember. W, not so much.

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    1. When he was a candidate and early in his presidency, Reagan was famous for starting every sentence with "Well...." "Well...." "Well...." He was much more articulate than W., but I don't agree that he was more articulate than every other candidate of our lifetimes.

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  10. One last thing, even though this thread is pretty much dead and therefore I'm talking to Google Search, I guess -- if Romney is so disciplined, then why has he given like half a dozen major foreign policy addresses over the last who knows how many years in which he says things that are patently ridiculous and gets hammered by anybody in the press journalism racket who knows anything about foreign policy? He's already developing a dangerous reputation among knowledgeable pundits as a guy who lies pretty much all the time? I'm not accusing him of lying, mind you, I'm saying I see people say he tells whoppers *a lot*. His lack of equanimity about his former political profile as well as anything resembling a core political principle.... I don't know, you can call it "discipline" but to me it's a lot like the discipline of a certified public accountant who refuses to learn multiplication, or a priest who refuses to make his congregants undergo penance.

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  11. Somewhere in here is a tragedy. Romney's been preparing for the presidency since his stint as governor and the Olympics thing. It must have looked like he was so well set up. And then, the media landscape turned juuuust vapid enough so that his airbrushed persona would fly. And then.......... George W. Bush happened, and FOX News happened, and the Tea Party happened, and his presumed constituency turned into a flock of fifth graders, only not as nice. I'm writing his political obituary too soon, I know, but .... you really have to feel for the guy.

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    1. Well, he can wipe his tears away with $1000 bills.

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