In 2004, Barack Obama gave the keynote speech of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. This fame and success propelled him from just a state senator yet to win his first statewide election to one of the major speculated presidential candidates for 2008 – behind Hillary Clinton, of course, but still big on the radar of many pundits who were ultimately proven correct.
Mitt Romney received a similar privilege in 2004, giving a major speech at the Republican National Convention. This gave him similar examination as a future presidential candidate, as even in 2004 news sites such as MSNBC stated that “It has been talked about for some time now within tight political circles that Romney has his own sights set on the White House.” Romney began eyeing the White House not much later in 2005, when he made many of the policy shifts that would be more accepted by the national Republican Party compared to those that served him in liberal Massachusetts. The clearest sign of his thinking about a presidential campaign, Romney’s presidential exploratory committee was formed on his last day as Massachusetts’s governor on January 3, 2007, which spent only about a month pretending to look into things before Romney announced his candidacy. The point of this is that if Romney decided to run in January of 2007, he’s had 5 years to run for President or plan for running for President. If he decided in 2005 he’s had 7 years, and if he decided in 2004 he’s had 8. Mitt Romney has had all that time to practice and plan. He’s had that time to read about prior campaigns, to study what went wrong with his first campaign, to boost his image, to prepare years of great tax returns, to work out responses to any objection levied at him, and to generally become the perfect candidate.
Thus Romney’s failure to handle his background in the slightest is jaw-dropping. Firstly Romney has been unable to defend the achievements he has worked to sell to voters. When he first began running in this cycle, he sold himself as a successful governor of Massachusetts and a job creator at Bain Capital. Then his opponents in the primaries called him out as a flip flopper on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and individual insurance mandates compared to his positions as governor, and as a force for bankruptcy and job loss while CEO of Bain capital. Romney didn’t fight back enough and ultimately both major elements of his background have become at best neutral points of agreement, with Romney defending himself from allegations of corruption and poor ethics more than he’s been pushing Bain to show his economic expertise. In addition Romney now cannot claim any sort of strong governorship in Massachusetts because then voters will recall the Mitt Romney who pushed for increased gun control, expanded provision of abortions, and the inspiration for Obamacare. Romney has allowed his greatest strengths during the primary to become weaknesses during the general election – it would almost be better if he had never even brought them up, so he could focus on Obama. To point to his most recent failure to plan things out in advance, recently the Boston Globe broke the story that Mitt had claimed to leave Bain in 1999, but had continued to stay on Bain’s paperwork for years afterward. Romney could have either specified how he was defining leaving Bain earlier to avoid this scandal, or just said he had left when he left the paperwork. Instead his campaign went into frenzy struggling to respond by denying the claim, specifying a different interpretation of the term, and criticizing Obama all without a clear message. Romney had years to decide how he would address leaving Bain in this campaign. That he didn’t is inexplicable. When a candidate cannot make a major government position and the operation of major business into positive things, he is a candidate that has somehow spent seven years not planning for his bid to be one of the most powerful men in the world.
Furthermore Romney has submitted just one year of tax returns, and has refused to release any further years. That’s his right as a private citizen, and in fact he’s not obligated to release any returns at all – he was just following a tradition started by his father. However, his failure to release more, combined with his image among many voters as financially shady, sends the message, albeit unintentionally, that tax returns from prior years have data that makes him look bad. Whether they do or not, the fact that they don’t have data that actively helps him is shocking. Romney is incredibly wealthy – Forbes recently placed his net worth at 230 million dollars, and his sons are provided for with a separate $100 million trust fund. He could afford to donate massive sums to charity, while utilizing little to no tax loopholes, and only taking money from the cleanest of sources, and still be exceptionally rich, while looking great to the American people. And he has had, as I said earlier, at least 5 years to do all this. That he can only produce one mediocre tax return is ridiculously poor planning on his part.
Romney shouldn’t have waited until now to learn his lesson about responding to attacks about his background. He shouldn’t have waited until his first presidential campaign to learn that lesson. He should have learned it in 1994, when he lost a senate election against Ted Kennedy because of criticisms of his record at Bain. He said “It left in the mind of voters I was a bad guy, a corporate downsizer and raider, and I should have responded more vehemently.” The exact same can be said of this campaign today. Mitt Romney has had eighteen years to realize that he has to defend his background if he wants to use it, making it a lesson so old that it could itself go vote for Mitt Romney.
There is no reason to expect any of this to get better for Mitt Romney, who is stuck between a rock and a hard place. If he defends his record it stays in the public eye and he stays on the defensive, which is the exact opposite of the strategy one wants when going up against an incumbent president. If he does not defend his record then it becomes permanently usable against him. His failure to construct an organized defense for that record by polishing his tax returns and practicing his coverage of Bain has led to a sloppiness seldom seen in anything a person has had seven years to practice for. Mitt Romney had the choice to play well or not play at all in presenting his background, and instead he has just played poorly.