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.
He has got seven weeks. He’s just had two big flubs. On the Mideast he seemed like a political opportunist, not big and wise but small and tinny. It mattered because the crisis was one of those moments when people look at you and imagine you as president.
Then his comments released last night and made months ago at the private fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla. Mr. Romney has relearned what four years ago Sen. Barack Obama learned: There’s no such thing as private when you’re a candidate with a mic. There’s someone who doesn’t like you in that audience. There’s someone with a cellphone. Mr. Obama’s clinger comments became famous in 2008 because when people heard what he’d said, they thought, “That’s the real him, that’s him when he’s talking to his friends.”
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And so a quick denunciation of what Mr. Romney said, followed by some ideas.
The central problem revealed by the tape is Romney’s theory of the 2012 election. It is that a high percentage of the electorate receives government checks and therefore won’t vote for him, another high percentage is supplying the tax revenues and will vote for him, and almost half the people don’t pay taxes and presumably won’t vote for him.
My goodness, that’s a lot of people who won’t vote for you. You wonder how he gets up in the morning.
This is not how big leaders talk, it’s how shallow campaign operatives talk: They slice and dice the electorate like that, they see everything as determined by this interest or that. They’re usually young enough and dumb enough that nobody holds it against them, but they don’t know anything. They don’t know much about America.
We are a big, complicated nation. And we are human beings. We are people. We have souls. We are complex. We are not data points. Many things go into our decisions and our political affiliations.
You have to be sophisticated to know that. And if you’re operating at the top of national politics, you’re supposed to be sophisticated.
I wrote recently of an imagined rural Ohio woman sitting on her porch, watching the campaign go by. She’s 60, she identifies as conservative, she likes guns, she thinks the culture has gone crazy. She doesn’t like Obama. Romney looks OK. She’s worried about the national debt and what it will mean to her children. But she’s having a hard time, things are tight for her right now, she’s on partial disability, and her husband is a vet and he gets help, and her mother receives Social Security.
She’s worked hard and paid into the system for years. Her husband fought for his country.
And she’s watching this whole election and thinking.You can win her vote if you give her faith in your fairness and wisdom. But not if you label her and dismiss her.
As for those workers who don’t pay any income taxes, they pay payroll taxes—Social Security and Medicare. They want to rise in the world and make more money. They’d like to file a 1040 because that will mean they got a raise or a better job.
They too are potential Romney voters, because they’re suffering under the no-growth economy.
So: Romney’s theory of the case is all wrong. His understanding of the political topography is wrong.
And his tone is fatalistic. I can’t win these guys who will only vote their economic interests, but I can win these guys who will vote their economic interests, plus some guys in the middle, whoever they are.
That’s too small and pinched and narrow. That’s not how Republicans emerge victorious—”I can’t win these guys.” You have to have more respect than that, and more affection, you don’t write anyone off, you invite everyone in. Reagan in 1984 used to put out his hand: “Come too, come walk with me.” Come join, come help, whatever is happening in your life.
You know what Romney sounded like? Like a kid new to politics who thinks he got the inside lowdown on how it works from some operative. But those old operatives, they never know how it works. They knew how it worked for one cycle back in the day.
They’re jockeys who rode Seabiscuit and thought they won a race.
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The big issue—how we view government, what we want from it, what we need, what it rightly asks of us, what it wrongly demands of us—is a good and big and right and serious subject. It has to be dealt with seriously, at some length. And it is in part a cultural conversation. There’s a lot of grievance out there, and a sense of entitlement in many spheres. A lot of people don’t feel confident enough or capable enough to be taking part in the big national drama of Work in America. Why? What’s going on? That’s a conversation worth having.
I think there is a broad and growing feeling now, among Republicans, that this thing is slipping out of Romney’s hands. Today at a speech in New York with what seemed like many conservatives and Republicans in the audience, I said more or less the above. I wondered if anyone would say, in the Q&A, “I think you’ve got it wrong, you’re too pessimistic.” No one did. A woman asked me to talk about why in a year the Republicans couldn’t lose, the Republican candidate seems to be losing.
I said pre-mortems won’t help, if you want to help the more conservative candidate, it’s a better use of your time to pitch in with ideas. There’s seven weeks to go. This isn’t over, it’s possible to make things better.
Republicans are going to have to right this thing. They have to stabilize it.
It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one. It’s not big, it’s not brave, it’s not thoughtfully tackling great issues. It’s always been too small for the moment. All the activists, party supporters and big donors should be pushing for change. People want to focus on who at the top is least constructive and most responsible. Fine, but Mitt Romney is no puppet: He chooses who to listen to. An intervention is in order. “Mitt, this isn’t working.”
Romney is known to be loyal. He sticks with you when you’re going through a hard time, he rides it down with you. That’s a real personal quality, a virtue. My old boss Reagan was a little colder. The night before he won the crucial 1980 New Hampshire primary—the night before he wonit—he fired his campaign manager, John Sears. Reagan thought he wasn’t cutting it, so he was gone. The economist Martin Anderson once called Reagan genially ruthless, and he was. But then it wasn’t about John Sears’s feelings or Ronald Reagan’s feelings, it was about America. You can be pretty tough when it’s about America.
Romney doesn’t seem to be out there campaigning enough. He seems—in this he is exactly like the president—to always be disappearing into fund-raisers, and not having enough big public events.
But the logic of Romney’s fundraising has seemed, for some time, slightly crazy. He’s raising money so he can pile it in at the end, with ads. But at the end will they make much difference? Obama is said to have used a lot of his money early on, to paint a portrait of Romney as Thurston Howell III, as David Brooks put it. That was a gamble on Obama’s part: spend it now, pull ahead in the battlegrounds, once we pull ahead more money will come in because money follows winners, not losers.
If I’m seeing things right, that strategy is paying off.
Romney’s staff used to brag they had a lower burn rate, they were saving it up. For what? For the moment when Americans would rather poke out their eyeballs and stomp on the goo than listen to another ad?
Also, Mr. Romney’s ads are mostly boring. It’s kind of an achievement to be boring at a moment in history like this, so credit where it’s due: That musta taken effort!
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When big, serious, thoughtful things must be said then big, serious, thoughtful speeches must be given. Mr. Romney is not good at press conferences. Maybe because he doesn’t give enough, and so hasn’t grown used to them, and confident.
He should stick to speeches, and they have to be big—where America is now, what we must do, how we can do it. He needs to address the Mideast too, because it isn’t going to go away as an issue and is adding a new layer of unease to the entire election. Luckily, Romney has access to some of the best writers and thinkers in the business. I say it that way because to write is to think, and Romney needs fresh writing andfresh thinking.
Romney needs to get serious here.Or, he can keep typing out his stray thoughts with Stuart Stevens, who’s sold himself as a kind of mad genius. I get the mad part.
Wake this election up. Wade into the crowd, wade into the fray, hold a hell of a rally in an American city—don’t they count anymore? A big, dense city with skyscrapers like canyons, crowds and placards, and yelling. All of our campaigning now is in bland suburbs and tired hustings. How about: New York, New York, the city so nice they named it twice? You say the state’s not in play? It’s New York. Our media lives here, they’ll make it big. How about downtown Brooklyn, full of new Americans? Guys—make it look like there’s an election going on. Because there is.
Be serious and fight.
If you’re gonna lose, lose honorably. If you’re gonna win do it with meaning.
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Romney always seems alone out there, a guy with a mic pacing an empty stage. All by himself, removed from the other humans. It’s sad-looking. It’s not working.
Time for the party to step up. Romney should go out there every day surrounded with the most persuasive, interesting and articulate members of his party, the old ones, and I say this with pain as they’re my age, like Mitch Daniels and Jeb Bush, and the young ones, like Susana Martinez and Chris Christie and Marco Rubio—and even Paul Ryan. I don’t mean one of them should travel with him next Thursday, I mean he should be surrounded by a posse of them every day. Their presence will say, “This isn’t about one man, this is about a whole world of meaning, this is about a conservative political philosophy that can turn things around and make our country better.”
Some of them won’t want to do it because they’re starting to think Romney’s a loser and they don’t want to get loser on them. Too bad. They should be embarrassed if they don’t go, and try, and work, and show support for the conservative candidate at a crucial moment. Do they stand for something or not? Is it bigger than them or not?
Party elders, to the extent you exist this is why you exist:
Right this ship.
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So, these are some ideas. Others will have more, and they’ll be better.
But an intervention is needed.