You are now watching a classic case of how a media narrative — bolstered by authentic interviews that support an emerging argument — jells. The new narrative: Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is teetering on the brink of major political trouble, perhaps in danger of going down to defeat not due to Democratic Party ads as to the a) incompetence b)politically-tin-earned c) highlly insular nature of its campaign and campaign staff. It’s all over the new and old media, a major topic on talk radio and talk cable shows — and if it persists, even a major home run by Romney in a debate may not be able to excavate him from the perilous imagery hole.
But is there something going on that’s more fundamental? Talking Points’ Josh Marshal writes:
But don’t be distracted by the various plot lines. Romney’s core problem is this: the campaign’s strategy has always been that the economy itself will defeat Obama. So the economy defeats Barack Obama. And Mitt Romney is the can-do business man who the country turns to. In other words, Romney takes the presidency by default. This is hardly a crazy strategy with unemployment stuck above 8% and an economy that has actually decelerated over the course of the year. But it does not appear to be working. That’s the key.
You get a sense now that Democrats are starting to feel a bit giddy and that their underlying belief that there is no way in a milion years that in the ends voters would elect a flip-flopper and charisma-challenged candidate such as Mitt Romney as President is about to be vindicated. But The Daily Beast’s Douglas E. Schoen and Jessica Tarlov give variety of reasons why Democratic overconfidence — even confidence — could be unwise, ending with this:
In a recent interview, Romney told ABC News that he wasn’t worried about the numbers in Virginia and Ohio. He said, “Well, I’m ahead in a lot of other states, too. I saw one this morning, ahead in Florida, ahead in North Carolina. Gosh, we’re even tied in Wisconsin. These polls are going to bounce around a lot. I don’t pay a lot of attention day to day to which state’s up and which one’s down.”
Though Romney’s dismissive attitude toward the numbers is no doubt masking some concern, his supporters can look to 1980 for hope. In mid-September 1980, Gallup had Carter up 44-40 over Reagan. In fact, until late October—when Reagan asked his famous “Are you better off …” question in a debate—the polls were not favoring him to win at all, let alone by the landslide that he did.
Though it is not expected that Romney will perform as well as Reagan did in the debates, the 1980 case shows that weirder things have happened than Romney coming back from a five-point disadvantage. We also have to consider the possibility that sustained unrest in the Middle East as well as possible conflict with Iran could affect the numbers. Indeed, there is always time for something unpredictable to happen.
The upshot: While Obama is in the lead, it is far too early to be popping any champagne corks.
Here the context, as presented by NBC’s First Read:
*** 50 days out: With 50 days to go until Election Day, neither campaign is starting off this week in a comfortable place. The Obama camp is dealing with the start of a second week of protests in the Arab world over that anti-Muslim movie. If this story doesn’t die down in the next few days — and NBC’s Richard Engel reported on “TODAY” that the protests don’t appear to be as vigorous as they were last week — then this could be a major problem for the Obama White House and the re-election campaign. Meanwhile, Team Romney, after being criticized last week for its response to the embassy attacks, is contending with a different kind of unrest: a blame game for all of its current problems and strategy. We also are just a little more than two weeks out before the first debate, and both principals are studying hard. NBC’s Garrett Haake reported that Romney spent hours yesterday morning at a hotel in Burlington, MA, doing debate prep with Rob Portman serving as the Obama stand-in. And we can report that when President Obama visited the DNC on Friday, it was for a debate practice session with Sen. John Kerry, who is playing Romney in the mock debates.
Much of the increasingly loud negative buzz about the Romney campaign is spurred on today by a devastating piece of reportage in The Politico which traces how the Romney campaign got into political trouble. The overall verdict: poor decisions, tight control by Romney’s chief political maven and Romney himself insisting on calling the shots. Here are some key chunks of it:
Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s top strategist, knew his candidate’s convention speech needed a memorable mix of loft and grace if he was going to bound out of Tampa with an authentic chance to win the presidency. So Stevens, bypassing the speechwriting staff at the campaign’s Boston headquarters, assigned the sensitive task of drafting it to Peter Wehner, a veteran of the last three Republican White Houses and one of the party’s smarter wordsmiths.
Not a word Wehner wrote was ever spoken
Stevens junked the entire thing, setting off a chaotic, eight-day scramble that would produce an hour of prime-time problems for Romney, including Clint Eastwood’s meandering monologue to an empty chair.
Romney’s convention stumbles have provoked weeks of public griping and internal sniping about not only Romney but also his mercurial campaign muse, Stevens. Viewed warily by conservatives, known for his impulsiveness and described by a colleague as a “tortured artist,” Stevens has become the leading staff scapegoat for a campaign that suddenly is behind in a race that had been expected to stay neck and neck through Nov. 6.
To pin recent stumbles on Stevens would be to overlook Romney’s role in all this. As the man atop the enterprise — in effect, the CEO of a $1 billion start-up — Romney ultimately bears responsibility for the decisions he personally oversaw, such as the muffling of running mate Paul Ryan’s strict budget message and his own convention performance.
As the Tampa convention drew near, Wehner, now a “senior adviser” and blogger for the campaign, was laboring under an unusual constraint for the author of a high-stakes political speech. He was not invited to spend time with Romney, making it impossible to channel him fluently.
Nevertheless, Wehner came up with a draft he found pleasing, including the memorable line: “The incumbent president is trying to lower the expectations of our nation to the sorry level of his own achievement. He only wins if you settle.” It also included a reference to Afghanistan, which was jettisoned with the rest of his work.
Instead, eight days before the convention, at a time when a campaign usually would be done drafting and focused instead on practicing such a high-stakes speech, Stevens frantically contacted John McConnell and Matthew Scully, a speechwriting duo that had worked in George W. Bush’s campaign and White House. Stevens told them they would have to start from scratch on a new acceptance speech. Not only would they have only a few days to write it, but Romney would have little time to practice it.
McConnell and Scully, drawing on their experience writing for Vice President Dick Cheney, were racing to finish the convention speech for Romney’s running mate, Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman. It was the Wednesday before convention week. Ryan was to speak the following Wednesday, followed by Romney on Thursday.
The two finished Ryan’s text the next day and started crashing on Romney’s. That weekend, Stevens accompanied Romney as he went to a school auditorium in New Hampshire with his wife, Ann, to practice yet another version of the speech. Only one paragraph from the McConnell-Scully draft wound up being used, about a rose that Romney’s father had put on his mother’s bedside table each day. The speech that was actually delivered, it turned out, had been cobbled together by Stevens and Romney himself.
When asked about the various versions of the convention speech, Stevens said: “The governor writes his speeches.” Pressed on whether he does so with no help, Stevens added: “He reaches out to a lot of people. … We don’t discuss who works on what. It’s all just the Romney campaign. Everything is just the Romney campaign.”
The hasty process resulted in a colossal oversight: Romney did not include a salute to troops serving in war zones, and did not mention Al Qaeda or Afghanistan, putting him on the defensive on national security just as the Middle East was about to erupt. It was also very light on policy specifics, much to the chagrin of conservatives who were certain the addition of Ryan and inclusion of Wehner meant a real battle of ideas was about to begin.
“You design a campaign to reinforce the guy that you’ve got,” said a longtime Romney friend. “The campaign has utterly failed to switch from a primary mind-set to a general-election mind-set, and did not come up with a compelling, policy-backed argument for credible change.”
The GOP convention failed to generate momentum or excitement for Romney — a potentially fatal setback for the struggling campaign…..
A Romney official explained: “Mitt is a sticker — he stays with you. He had a reputation at Bain for sticking with people. They made a bad investment, he hung with them. … None of this is going to be fixed. This is the organization, and this is who Mitt is betting on to win. There aren’t going to be further changes.”
A person who recently was alone with Romney added: “Big changes would destabilize the thing.”
And, indeed, tht seems to be Romney’s problem:
He seems more of a sticker, than a stickler.
Some Romney loyalists think Stevens never fully appreciated what a good and unique candidate they had in Romney, and pleaded early on to showcase what they saw as a generous, wise and gifted leader. Still, for reasons not fully understood by those around Romney, the candidate not only went with Stevens but gave him tremendous authority.
There are no signs his authority is getting curtailed: Sources inside the campaign said he just prevailed in an internal battle over the next rounds of ads, customized for each swing state.
The questions now begin:
(1)Is this piece sympomatic of just the Romney campaign or could it be applied to many national campaigns that aren’t working?
(2) How much of The Night of Long (Anonymous Political) Knives is at play in this piece?
(3) If campaigns are run the way a President would govern, what does this portend for a Romney Presidency?
Last night’s Politico story — describing disorganization inside the Romney campaign, with most of the attention focused on campaign strategist Stuart Stevens — isn’t surprising in a presidential campaign. After all, when the going gets tough, campaign advisers and consultants start pointing fingers. But what IS surprising is that such an article is coming so soon, before the debates and before this race is truly decided. But the Politico piece is more than a story about Stevens and other Romney officials; it’s a story about Mitt Romney. How could someone who has campaigned on his managerial experience, including running a billion-dollar enterprise — in Politico’s telling — make something as basic as writing a convention acceptance speech seem so chaotic? As the article even quips, the campaign structure has become so unwieldy that it badly needs a consultant from Bain & Co. to fix things. Bottom line: This kind of article doesn’t get written about winning campaigns. Then again, this race isn’t over. But oh, what a bad narrative it feeds at the start of this week.
Some on the right are pushing back on this part of the Politico article by arguing that the Convention speech accomplished what it needed to and that this is much ado about nothing. Even if you happen to be one of those people who think that Romney’s RNC speech was a smashing success, though, and there are many who do not, what this tale tells about the campaign and the candidate should be of concern to anyone who supports the Romney campaign…
….In the end, though, this isn’t just about the campaign itself. The Politico article makes clear that this campaign is running the way Mitt Romney wants it to be run. If mistakes are being made and the campaign disorganized, that says something about the guy who set it up to begin with. Based on everything we know about Romney, it seems unlikely that he will listen to these calls for a campaign personnel reboot, but even if he did I’m not sure that it would make any difference. Campaigns are a reflection of the candidate, and the disorganization we’re seeing from Team Romney does not speak well of the candidate. Besides, there are only 50 days to go in the campaign and there are three debates to prepare for, it’s a bit late to start over again from scratch.
Mitt Romney’s campaign said on Monday that it would get more specific about the candidate’s legislative priorities, a nod to criticism from fellow Republicans that their nominee needs to release more policy details.
Aides refused to describe the action as a pivot or change in direction, instead calling it the “natural progression” following a convention that focused on Romney’s personal side, but the move comes amid growing anxiety that President Obama is solidifying his lead in the race.
“We think voters now, from what we see in data and other research, are looking for — OK, if we’re going to make this change, how is it going to make my life better, how are things going to improve?” said Romney adviser Ed Gillespie on a conference call with reporters. “We know that they know he has a plan, which is a good thing, but we also know they would like to know a little bit more about the specifics, and we’re going to meet the demand.”
To aid in that effort, the campaign released two new ads on Monday detailing Romney’s five-point economic plan and criticizing Obama’s record. The campaign is also building expectations for a speech Monday afternoon at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles, where it says the candidate will highlight more policy specifics.
“We think the American people are looking forward to hearing how we can turn the economy around,” Gillespie said. “They’re open to proposals.”
But the Romney team also admitted that it had not done enough to distinguish its economic vision from that of the incumbent president.
The new focus on policy detail comes amid reports of campaign infighting, with chief strategist Stuart Stevens bearing the brunt of the blame for a Republican convention that failed to deliver any serious momentum for Romney.
Campaign sources refused to characterize the new substance offensive as a strategy shift in the face of stagnant poll numbers, even though Republicans in Washington and elsewhere have said privately since the Democratic National Convention that Romney needs to shake up his message if he wants to win.
The Romney official said the latest campaign tweaks are routine at this stage in the race.
“We have got 50 days left and voters are starting to pay attention,” the source said. “This is the time for us to clearly communicate what Gov. Romney will do to distinguish himself from President Obama.”
Another Romney adviser embraced the challenge of being an underdog and said incumbents typically lead their challengers until the closing days of a campaign.
The adviser said the campaign made a calculated gamble to lay low during the Democratic Convention, even if it allowed President Obama to dominate that week’s news cycle and secure a post-convention bump.
“We went dark over the convention and that saved us $20 million and we did it very deliberately knowing that when we came out of the convention we’d have less of a bump,” the adviser said. “$20 million is $20 million, and you’re competing against that other message. We are very disciplined about it. We would rather spend our $20 million now in an uncluttered environment.”
Asked to describe the new tone of the Romney message, the adviser answered, “It’s just a winning the election package.”
So where do things exactly stand now? One of the best analyses comes via Time’s Mark Halperin who posts a long look at the campaign by Doug Sosnik, who worked for Bill Clinton, among others.
It needs to be read in its entirety and is quite long. Here are a few of the key points. First: the bottom line is that Sosnik sees Obama in a better position than Romney, but believes its likely GOPers will largely control Congress for the next decade and continue to hold key governorships. Some excerpts that I’ve put in list form:
Obamas’ personal popularity, the fact that more people continue to blame Bush than
Obama for our current economic conditions, the overwhelmingly negative view of the Republican Party combined with the underwhelming Romney candidacy, all point to anObama second term…
–Obama’sJob Approval Ratings have Held Steady.
—Obama has Maintained a Year-Long Lead in the Race.
–Almost 9 in 10 Obama and Romney Supporters are Certain about Their Vote.
–Democrats currently have the three most towering figures in American politics:Obama (if he wins), Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. The Republicans simply have noequal.
–Democrats now have the high ground on three issues foreign policy, socialissues and taxes that have virtually paralyzed them for the past 50 years.
–The changing demographics forecast the future of American politics. The rapidlychanging profile of the country is a ticking time bomb for the Republican
–The political and generational take-over of the Republican Party by the Club forGrowth/Tea Party wing of the party is nearly complete.
—Over the longer term, Republicans appear to have far more depth and talent rising through their ranks as evidenced by the quality of their speaker line-upduring the convention.
–Republicans stand the chance of controlling Congress for the rest of the decade if they don’t screw it up.
—Republicans are also well-positioned to continue to dominate state houses andlegislatures across the country through the decade.
There’s a great deal more, so go to the link and read it in full.
The larger question: is which party will win the battle but lose the war? Or can one of the parties win (or lose) both?
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Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.