Mitt Romney is the master of his own campaign mess. He built it, and now he owns it.
The recent spate of bad news began and ended in Florida. According to The New York Times, Romney personally recruited and signed off on actor Clint Eastwood, whose empty chair routine dominated a night that should have belonged to the GOP nominee and his big convention speech in Tampa.
About that speech — Politico.com reported that Romney co-wrote it with campaign adviser Stuart Stevens, after Stevens ditched a version written by someone else. So Romney personally bears responsibility for forgetting to mention Afghanistan or US troops.
Then Romney went on “Meet the Press” and told interviewer David Gregory that as president, he would keep the popular parts of the much-maligned Affordable Care Act. Those surprising remarks came after Romney spent primary season pledging to repeal Obamacare. His campaign tried to walk back this revised view, but it was too late.
Romney’s hasty response to recent US embassy attacks in Egypt and Libya made him look petty and political. There’s reason to question the Obama administration’s handling of the situation, which ended with the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. But Romney personally chose the wrong time to do it.
And of course, it was Romney who told a roomful of super rich donors last May in Boca Raton what he thought they wanted to hear — that nearly half of the country’s voters aren’t worth targeting for support because they are government-dependent and unlikely to back the Republican agenda for smaller government.
Romney’s calling card as a presidential candidate is supposedly his business experience. He wants voters to give him credit for decisions he made, first at Bain & Company, and then as founder of Bain Capital. In that spirit, he also owns decisions he makes as head of Team Romney. Not only are the recent ones bad for his candidacy, they reflect the consultant mindset that defines his career in business and politics.
As is frequently noted, the consulting business is transactional — problem-solving of a particular moment — versus ideological — representing a core set of values and principles held over time.
“He’s spent his entire life in a world that’s constantly changing, where he has had to modify his thinking in order to address problems,” Scott Meadow, a friend and former business partner, told Reason Magazine. “. . . He’s flexible because he’s had to be.”
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was just echoing his boss’s thinking when he made last spring’s “Etch A Sketch” comment on CNN; “Everything changes. . . You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
As Democratic consultant Michael Goldman points out, “It was a reflection that any position, no matter how big or small, can be altered and rearranged based on the needs of a given moment.”
Under that rubric, being pro-choice, anti-choice, or multiple choice — as Ted Kennedy labeled Romney during their 1994 Senate showdown — are all true positions at the moment the candidate holds them. Romney can criticize China’s economic policies as a presidential candidate, and still do business with China because it makes sense from a business perspective.
But while you can tweak things in the consulting world, it’s harder to do it in the world of presidential politics. If an unscripted Clint Eastwood seems like a great idea and it backfires, the candidate owns the consequences.
A consultant can advise a client to soften his stance on Obamacare. But when a candidate switches gears the way Romney did on “Meet the Press,” his opponent pounces.
If a candidate writes off 47 percent of the voting public, it’s hard to come back and say never mind, he really does stand for the 100 percent.
Before he was undermined by his own mistakes, the foundation of Romney’s case for the White House was what he describes as President Obama’s failure to lead. There are legitimate issues for him to raise, from Obama’s decision to focus first on healthcare reform to his overall inability to engage Congress.
But over recent weeks, Romney has also given voters good reason to question his own judgment and leadership.