WASHINGTON — Prominent conservative Republicans excoriated Mitt Romney’s campaign Thursday, publicly ridiculing his longtime core team of advisers — “the Boston boys,” as the Wall Street Journal labeled them — and suggesting they are bungling the presidential race.
“Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he’s running?” asked Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard.
The intraparty dissent has been simmering for several weeks, but the presumptive nominee’s struggle to articulate a response to last week’s Supreme Court ruling on health care inflamed critics. Specifically, the conservatives called on the campaign to start articulating a broader vision for what Romney would do as president, speak about something else besides the economy, and forcefully counter the Obama campaign’s attacks.
Much of the blame was directed at Romney’s aides, many of whom have been with him since his 2002 gubernatorial race in Massachusetts. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, an influential forum of conservative thought, called the stuttering response to the health ruling amateurish. “The campaign looks confused in addition to being politically dumb,’’ the editorial said, adding his “insular staff and strategy . . . are slowly squandering an historic opportunity.”
Several Republicans even poked at Romney’s advisers for allowing him to take a weeklong family vacation at his home in Wolfeboro, N.H., where he was photographed riding a Jet Ski driven by his wife, Ann.
“This is his advisers,’’ conservative commentator Laura Ingraham said Thursday on her radio show. “This is not Romney, this is the advisers telling him, ‘Oh, it’s fine. Take a week.’ There’s no week to spare! We have a country to save!”
Several of the critics — including Kristol; the Wall Street Journal; and its owner Rupert Murdoch — have never been extremely supportive of Romney. But the fact that the former Massachusetts governor is still taking fire from Republicans several weeks after he had appeared to unite his party could be a problem as the campaign prepares for a furious final few months.
Romney’s campaign downplayed the criticism, insisting there would be no shakeup within the tight-knit group of advisers. There also were attempts to protect Eric Fehrnstrom, the adviser who has become one of the public faces for the campaign.
One aide noted that it was senior strategist Russ Schriefer — not Fehrnstrom — who was in the meeting that seemed to provoke Murdoch’s ire and led to this tweet earlier this week: “Met Romney last week. Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful.”
“Governor Romney respects the team that he has and has full confidence in their abilities,” said Gail Gitcho, the campaign’s communications director. “We’re going to continue going out and delivering the same economic message that has gotten Governor Romney this far. We’ve always been focused on that message and will continue to do so.”
Several Republicans also defended the Romney campaign, saying a lot of the strategic criticism is inside baseball coming on a holiday week when most average voters are not paying attention.
The jobs report being released on Friday morning is more important than anything a campaign adviser says on television, they contended, and Romney has reason to trust his core team.
“Remember, they’ve done this before,” said Terry Holt, a Republican consultant who was the national spokesman for President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign. “I don’t think you can accuse these folks of being green. They’ve proven themselves. And they’ve stepped up every time they’ve had to.”
Steve Lombardo, a Republican consultant who worked for Romney’s campaign four years ago but is unaligned this year, said any major staff changes would be an overreaction.
“The ones that brought you to the dance are the ones you’ve got to go with,” he said. “The Boston team is strong and they’ve made some good additions.”
But several Republicans echoed comments made in recent weeks — from Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and former governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi — that Romney needs to give voters a reason to choose him and not merely make the election a
referendum on President Obama.
“There clearly is a lack of an overarching driving force and message in this campaign,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican consultant with close ties to one of Romney’s former GOP rivals, Newt Gingrich. “It’s fine to be manically focused on the economy and jobs but . . . we’re not hiring some economist to fix the economy. We’re trying to hire a leader.
“As it is now you’re going to see more anti-Obama bumper stickers than you will pro-Romney bumper stickers,” he added. “That’s a problem.”
The thrust of the criticism from the Wall Street Journal was over how Romney has handled the week after the Supreme Court upheld Obama’s health care law. The editorial criticized the campaign’s “lame jujitsu spin” on the issue.
The court ruled that the law was constitutional because it considered the enforcement mechanism for the individual mandate in the 2010 health care expansion — a penalty payment made to the Internal Revenue Service — was a tax.
Fehrnstrom said on Monday that Romney “disagrees with the court’s ruling that the mandate was a tax,” a stance that undercut conservative attempts to use the ruling to label the president a tax hypocrite.
On Wednesday, Romney himself reversed course and told CBS News he accepts the ruling that the individual mandate punishment was a tax. It was a rare instance where the candidate and the top shaper of his message were publicly not on the same page.
By Thursday morning, Kristol joined in the attacks, comparing Romney’s campaign to other losing bids from Massachusetts (Michael Dukakis in 1988, and John Kerry in 2004) and saying the candidate was being too timid.
“Adopting a prevent defense when it’s only the second quarter and you’re not even ahead is dubious enough as a strategy,” Kristol wrote on the Weekly Standard website. “But his campaign’s monomaniacal belief that it’s about the economy and only the economy, and that they need to keep telling us stupid voters that it’s only about the economy, has gone from being an annoying tick to a dangerous self-delusion.”
“What is his economic growth agenda? His deficit reform agenda? His health care reform agenda? His tax reform agenda? His replacement for Dodd-Frank?” Kristol added. “No need for any of that, I suppose the Romney campaign believes.”
Kristol has been a frequent critic of Romney’s campaign but recently joined him for a retreat the Romney campaign held for top donors and supporters in Park City, Utah.
Less than two weeks before he would use his magazine’s website to blister Romney, Kristol sat for a panel discussion on “media insight.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.