John Heilemann has a piece in New York magazine where he argues that the Romney camp missteps, especially the badly handled response to the Libyan murders of American diplomats, risks making the campaign look desperate.
The peril to Romney’s candidacy of being seen through the lens of desperation can’t be overstated. The paramount strategic objective of any campaign is to maintain control of the candidate’s public image—and if the media filter begins to view his every move through a dark or unflattering prism, things can quickly spin out of control, to a point where nothing he says or does is taken at face value. “Romney is in a very bad place,” says another senior Republican strategist. “He’s got the Republican intelligentsia second-guessing him, publicly and privately. The party base has never trusted him and thinks that everything bad it ever thought about him is being borne out now. And he’s got the media believing that he can’t win. He’s right on the edge of a self-fulfilling downward spiral.”
Whether Romney can resist that spiral in the two weeks between now and the first presidential debate is an open question but there’s no doubt that the pressure on him to win that debate decisively is now almost overwhelming.
Meanwhile, Rupert Cornwell wonders whether Romney’s is the most inept campaign ever.
We have clearly reached that stage in an election campaign where time is running short and the candidate who is behind gets a load of advice from the party’s supporters about what must be done to dramatically turn things around.
This advice is of two kinds.
There are those who urge that immediate and dramatic action be taken but are vague about the specifics of what should be done. There are calls for the candidate to be bold (about what?), to make a dramatic speech (saying what?), change course (to what direction?), shake up the campaign staff (replace with whom?), and so on.
Long-time Republican operative Peggy Noonan gives an example of this when in the midst of a remarkably incoherent piece calling for “big, serious, thoughtful, speeches” to be given says:
What should Mitt Romney do now? He should peer deep into the abyss. He should look straight into the heart of darkness where lies a Republican defeat in a year the Republican presidential candidate almost couldn’t lose. He should imagine what it will mean for the country, for a great political philosophy, conservatism, for his party and, last, for himself. He must look down unblinkingly.
And then he needs to snap out of it, and move.
Move where? Later in the piece she says he should go to Brooklyn. Why Brooklyn? I am not familiar with it but does it have many abysses that one can peer deeply into?
Jonathan Chait, in a funny article on the kind of vacuous advice being thrown around, is also puzzled by Noonan’s advice.
But where would he find this abyss? Is there one for sale? And what if he accidentally blinks? Does he have to start over? Would a series of shorter, more shallow peeks into the abyss possibly help, perhaps if he scheduled fund-raisers in between?
The other kind of advice losing candidates receive is more specific but tends to come from the rabid nutters and their advice is always the same. Be more extreme! Fly that tea party banner even more proudly! These are the people who were thrilled about the release of the secret ‘47% video’ because they really believe that stuff and they call on Romney to embrace that message and go on an even bigger rampage against the moochers and looters.
They are chafing at what they see as the muzzling of their heartthrob Paul Ryan and are calling for him to be unleashed.
Through the halls of Congress and well beyond, a whisper campaign is bursting into the open: Rather than burden him with the usual constraints on a ticket’s No. 2 not to upstage or get ahead of the presidential nominee, let Ryan be Ryan and take a detailed, policy-heavy fight to President Obama and the Democrats.
Of course, Sarah Palin has advice. She always has advice for everyone and it is the same advice that worked so well for her when she ran with John McCain: go rogue.
The fact remains that Romney, like McCain in 2008, has been steadily trailing Barack Obama in the polls and could just drift on to defeat. He cannot afford to have the impression gaining ground that he is an inevitable loser. He can hope for something external to happen that dramatically improves his fortunes.
Or he can gamble and go for broke.
Gambling in politics is generally not a good idea. McCain gambled in 2008 with Sarah Palin and while that seemed to pay off initially, it resulted in his campaign unraveling rapidly.
But while McCain clearly has a gambler’s instincts, it is not clear that Romney has. He seems to have a risk-averse personality. At one time, I thought that this was inconsistent with him working in the world of high finance, where the ethos of high risk and high reward would seem to attract those with a gambler’s instincts. What was a cautious guy like him doing in that world?
But it seems like the Bain Capital model of private equity financing was relatively low risk, with them making money whether the companies they took over succeeded or failed. As long as you had sufficient money and contacts to enter the game, which Romney had from his father, you could hardly lose. So its seems like it was actually a safe career choice for an ambitious young man who valued making and keeping money over practically everything else. Maybe those who know more about private equity work in general or Bain Capital in particular could chime in on this.
We should also remember that during the primaries when each of his rivals seemed to threaten his sense that the nomination was his, Romney unleashed a barrage of negative attacks on them that successively sank his challengers, especially Newt Gingrich. But his opponents in those cases (Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum) were poorly funded and organized, not to mention prone to saying idiotic things.
Although I have serious criticisms of Barack Obama’s policies in many areas, I have to concede that he is a formidable campaigner, personally disciplined and with a competent staff. He will not be as easy to put off his stride and with the resources to fight back
So will Romney step out of his comfort zone and gamble? Or will he play it safe and hope for the best, that some unforeseen event throws the election in his favor?