The Killing

Column: The battle to define Mitt Romney is over—and Romney lost

Mitt Romney / AP
August 10, 2012

The Massachusetts multimillionaire who won his party’s nomination largely on perceptions of "electability" had become the target of a ferocious blitz of negative advertising. Partisans and media decried many of the attacks as misleading or false. The nominee, busy raising money, had yet to respond with a commensurate ad buy that made the positive case for his candidacy. He relied instead on outside groups to pummel the incumbent’s record. And though unaffiliated consultants worried that the challenger may have unilaterally disarmed in the contest to define his biography, personality, and policies, campaign operatives and their media allies said the race was more or less tied. The choice was made to stay the course, and to accumulate a war chest that could be spent in the fall.

"This decision may be remembered as the most brilliant move of the campaign," wrote Ryan Lizza, "or the one that cost" the nominee "the presidency. It is a large-scale version of rope-a-dope—allow your opponent to unload with his most powerful punches as you hunker down and bide your time, waiting to unload in the next round, once the other guy has spent himself."

The "other guy" to whom Lizza referred in his May 3, 2004, New Republic article was of course George W. Bush, whose portrayal of John Kerry as a flip-flopping tax-and-spend liberal weak on national security was a success. President Bush eked out re-election, 51 percent to 48 percent nationally, thanks to a hundred thousand votes in Ohio and some trusty Diebold machines.

Eight years later, the positions are reversed. The incumbent whose poll numbers are in dangerous territory is a Democrat. The Massachusetts multimillionaire is a Republican. It is conservatives who are crying foul over the incumbent and his allies’ negative advertising, not liberals.

What has not changed is the incumbent’s use of donations from millionaires and billionaires to define his opponent in terms anathema to the voters who will decide the election, while in the midst of the onslaught the challenger engages in a version of rope-a-dope. The voters to whom the Bush appeal was targeted in 2004 were the right-leaning independents who may have had second thoughts about the Iraq war after David Kay reported that he had been unable to find weapons of mass destruction, but who also were leery of the ashen-faced and aristocratic liberal from the north.

In 2012 Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, chief strategist David Axelrod, White House senior adviser David Plouffe, and super PAC strategists Bill Burton and Paul Begala are out to disillusion white voters without college degrees in the Rust Belt and Mountain West, who will elect Mitt Romney president if they vote Republican by the 30-point margin they gave the GOP in 2010, but who could also give President Obama a second term if they do not turn out in great numbers, or if their support drops to the 18-point margin they gave John McCain in 2008.

We are therefore witnessing a well-rehearsed and coordinated and almost balletic exercise in voter suppression, as Obama and his helpers spend hundreds of millions of dollars convincing middle America that Romney is a rich elitist who made a fortune in rapacious finance capitalism, and whose concern for the bottom line trumps transparency, compassion, and community. The objective of this campaign is to tie Romney down, Gulliver-like, with connections to the most lurid aspects of Bain Capital and the global economy, thereby hobbling his ability to make his case and dragooning white voters into apathy.

The chief objective of any candidate is to define himself positively and his opponent negatively. Romney has allowed the Obama team to define him in their terms. He has three opportunities—his vice presidential pick, his convention speech, and his performance in the debates—to seize the initiative and escape the fetters Obama has constructed. Failure to do so would leave this close election to chance. Romney risks John Kerry’s fate.

The mystery is why the GOP nominee allowed himself to fall into this trap. He and his team knew the Bain attacks were coming. The late Ted Kennedy used Bain as a cudgel to beat back Romney’s senate challenge in 1994. As early as last August, Politico reported that the Obama campaign’s "mission" was to "destroy Romney." Both Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich flung Bain at the frontrunner during the Republican primaries. Ann Romney put it well when she told CBS News that the entirety of Obama’s re-election strategy was "let’s kill this guy." The most senior levels of the Romney campaign had assured conservatives that Republicans were prepared for the attacks on private equity. They’ve had a funny way of showing it.

One has rather had the impression of a campaign overwhelmed by the volume and salaciousness of Obama’s smears. It was May when Axelrod and company loosed Bain on the campaign trail once again, and persisted in the offensive despite protests from Cory Booker, Bill Clinton, Deval Patrick, and other Democrats. That month also saw the political debut of Joe Soptic, the steelworker who lost his livelihood in a Bain deal, and who would star in commercials for both the Obama campaign and the Obama super PAC Priorities USA.

In July the argument intensified, with the Obama and Romney camps squabbling over when exactly the Republican nominee "retroactively retired" from the company he created, with Obama For America deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter suggesting Romney may have committed a felony, and with Obama portraying Romney as a man willing to ship just about every job overseas but his own. In July, too, surrogates for Obama inside and outside the media launched another line of attack that focused on Romney’s reluctance to release his tax returns for years prior to 2010. A high profile report in Vanity Fair suggested Romney was squirreling away money in secret overseas accounts. Other media speculated that Romney did not release the returns because he may have paid an extraordinarily low effective tax rate on investment income. The theories were legion. It did not matter that these allegations were based on absolutely no evidence. It did not matter that Romney has no legal or even moral requirement to release any more returns than he thinks are necessary. What mattered was that suspicions were raised. Doubts were sown. Cynicism spread.

Leave it to Harry Reid to crank the amplifier up to eleven by alleging, without substance, that an anonymous Bain investor once told him Romney had paid no taxes for 10 years. There is no evidentiary hurdle a smear must clear—if a Democrat utters it. Nancy Pelosi stood by our national embarrassment of a Senate majority leader. The Obama campaign released an ad raising the zero percent question and asking, "Isn’t it time for Mitt Romney to come clean?" Meanwhile Joe Soptic returned to the stage in an Obama super PAC advertisement suggesting that Romney was somehow responsible for the death of Soptic’s wife by cancer. The official Obama campaign initially denied knowledge of Soptic’s story in an attempt to distance itself from the ridiculously offensive television spot, only to later reverse its position.

Tax avoidance, felony, possible murder—this is the picture of Mitt Romney that Barack Obama has presented to the American people. One can point out the numerous factual errors and distortions and elisions in the portrait. One can observe, as Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades did in a fundraising e-mail issued Thursday, "This week, the Obama campaign hit a new low." One can suggest that the race has continued to be stable and that, in the current hostile environment, to be within the margin of error is a good thing for the Republicans. And yet all of these arguments were just as applicable to the candidacy of John Kerry eight years ago as they are to Mitt Romney’s candidacy today.

If Obama loses, it will be because Mitt Romney reminded white voters without college degrees of the threat Obamacare poses to individual liberty and national solvency; of Obama’s ritual sacrifice of energy independence and economic growth on the altar of environmentalism; of the burden that future generations will bear because of Obama’s spending; of Obama’s support for a redefinition of marriage and for an amnesty of illegal immigrants. Whatever prevents Romney from pointing these things out—whether it comes from the Obama campaign or from within Romney’s high command—also prevents him from winning the presidency.

Mitt Romney did not kill Joe Soptic’s wife, but the Obama campaign is effectively killing Mitt Romney’s reputation. It may be ugly. It may be dishonest. But if it succeeds, like all killings it will be irrevocable.