“Nothing is written.” That was T.E. Lawrence to the Arab tribesmen in Robert Bolt’s screenplay, a masterpiece, of “Lawrence of Arabia.” You write no one off. Nothing is inevitable. Life is news—”What happened today?” And news is surprise—”You’re kidding!”
But you have to look at the landscape and see the shape of the land. You have to see it clearly to move on it well.
So here’s one tough, cool-eyed report on what is happening in the presidential race. It’s from veteran Republican pollster, now corporate strategist, Steve Lombardo of Edelman public relations in Washington. Mr. Lombardo worked in the 2008 Romney campaign. He’s not affiliated with any candidate. This is what he wrote Thursday morning, and what he sees is pretty much what I see.
“The pendulum has swung toward Obama.” Mitt Romney has “a damaged political persona.” He is running behind in key states like Ohio and Virginia and, to a lesser extent, Florida. The president is reversing the decline that began with his “You didn’t build that” comment. For three weeks he’s been on a roll. The wind’s at his back.
How did we get here? What can turn it around?
1. Mr. Romney came out of the primaries “a damaged and flawed candidate.” Voters began to see him as elitist, rich, out of touch. “Here the Democrats’ early advertising was crucial.” Newt Gingrich hurt too, with his attacks on Bain.
2. The Democrats defined Mr. Romney “before he had a chance to define himself.” His campaign failed in “not doing a substantial positive media buy to explain who Mitt Romney is and what kind of president he might be.”
3. “Perceptions of the economy are improving.” Unemployment is high, but the stock market has improved, bringing 401(k)s with it.
4. Obama’s approval ratings are up five to six points since last year. He is now at roughly 49% approval, comparable to where President Bush was in 2004.
5. “The president had a strong convention and Romney a weak one.” The RNC failed “to relaunch a rebranded Romney and create momentum.”
6. Team Romney has been “reactive,” partly because of the need for damage control, but it also failed to force the Obama campaign to react to its proposals and initiatives.
7. The “47%” comment didn’t help, but Mr. Romney’s Libya statement was a critical moment. Team Romney did not know “the most basic political tenet of a foreign crisis: when there is an international incident in which America is attacked, voters in this country will (at least in the short term) rally around the flag and the President. Always. It is stunning that Team Romney failed to recognize this.”
But, says Mr. Lombardo, nothing is over, much remains fluid. The president and his campaign know it. “Among likely voters nationally only two-three points separate the two candidates.” The debates are critical. “If Romney clearly wins the first debate” Oct. 3, “he has a good chance of reversing the trajectory of the last three weeks.”
Why? “Because support for Obama remains lukewarm.” That’s why “he is not running away with this thing even after Romney’s myriad stumbles.”
Finally, “the economy is still weak and the jobs report on October 5th will be pivotal. A strong one may ensure an Obama victory. On the other hand, a poor one on the heels of a Romney debate win could re-align this race.”
* * *
It is true that a good debate, especially a good first one, can invigorate a candidate and lead to increased confidence, which can prompt good decisions and sensible statements. There is more than a month between the first debate and the voting: That’s enough time for a healthy spiral to begin.
But: The Romney campaign has to get turned around. This week I called it incompetent, but only because I was being polite. I really meant “rolling calamity.”
A lot of people weighed in, in I suppose expected ways: “Glad you said this,” “Mad you said this.” But, some surprises. No one that I know of defended the campaign or argued “you’re missing some of its quiet excellence.” Instead there was broad agreement with the gist of the critique—from some in the midlevel of the campaign itself, from outside backers and from various party activists and officials. There was a perhaps pessimistic assumption that no one in Boston would be open to advice. A veteran of a previous Romney campaign who supports the governor and admires him—”This is a good man”—said the candidate’s problem isn’t overconfidence, it’s a tin ear. That’s hard to change, the veteran said, because tin-earness keeps you from detecting and remedying tin-earness.
There were wistful notes from the Republicans who’d helped run previous campaigns, most of whom could be characterized as serious, moderate conservatives, all of whom want to see Mr. Romney win because they believe, honestly, that the president has harmed the country financially and in terms of its position in the world. They’re certain it will only get worse in the next four years, but they’re in despair at the Romney campaign. Some, unbidden, brought up the name James A. Baker III, who ran Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1984 (megalandslide—those were the days) and George H.W. Bush’s in 1988 (landslide.)
What they talked about, without using this phrase, is the Baker Way.
This was a man who could run a campaign. Twice in my life I’ve seen men so respected within their organizations that people couldn’t call them by their first names. That would be Mr. Paley, the buccaneer and visionary who invented CBS, and Mr. Baker, who ran things that are by nature chaotic and messy—campaigns and White Houses—with wisdom, focus, efficiency, determination and discipline. And he did it while being attacked every day from left, right and center—and that was in the Reagan White House, never mind outside, which was a constant war zone.
Mr. Baker’s central insight: The candidate can’t run the show. He can’t be the CEO of the campaign and be the candidate. The candidate is out there every day standing for things, fighting for a hearing, trying to get the American people to listen, agree and follow. That’s where his energies go. On top of that, if he’s serious, he has to put in place a guiding philosophy that somehow everyone on the plane picks up and internalizes. The candidate cannot oversee strategy, statements, speechwriting, ads. He shouldn’t be debating what statistic to put on slide four of the PowerPoint presentation. He has to learn to trust others—many others.
Mr. Baker broke up power centers while at the same time establishing clear lines of authority—and responsibility. When you screwed up, he let you know in one quick hurry. But most of all he had judgment. He delegated, and only the gifted were welcome: Bob Teeter, Dick Darman, Roger Ailes, Marlin Fitzwater. He didn’t like hacks, he didn’t get their point, and he knew one when he saw one.
A campaign is a communal exercise. It isn’t about individual entrepreneurs. It’s people pitching in together, aiming their high talents at one single objective: victory.
Mitt Romney needs to get his head screwed on right in this area. Maybe advice could come from someone in politics who awes him. If that isn’t Jim Baker then Mitt Romney’s not awe-able, which is a different kind of problem.