Romney the Unready

I have this horrible sinking feeling

– Pennsylvania Republican official

By Ken Feltman

Key Republican activists, many in high places within the party and active in groups that support the party, are feeling queasy. For whatever reason, the Mitt Romney campaign seems to have a fundamental, perhaps insoluble problem: Romney cannot grab hold of an issue, any issue.

Because of that, the campaign suffers weeks like this last one. A week ago, Romney received a gift-wrapped jobs report that promised to give him great opportunities to compare his job-creation plans with President Obama’s failed plans. What happened? The Obama campaign crushed the Romney folks. This week has been mostly about Bain Capital and Romney’s fuzzy approach to his business and tax records.

By week’s end, the Romney team was ballyhooing new ads that attacked Obama for attacking Bain Capital. The ads attacking Obama’s attack ads were produced quickly and must have tested well in focus groups. But when a candidate attacks an opponent’s attack ads, that is an admission that the attack is working. Where were the ads promoting Romney’s plan to create jobs? Oops, that is a bit of a problem. Romney really does not have much of a jobs plan.

Condi Rice to the rescue?

Actually, he has very few plans at all, it appears. His family vacation seemed pretty well scripted, but his presidential campaign is like a leaf in the wind, waiting for the next breeze – the breeze that may blow it away. The best news for Romney came from reports (probably planted by his own campaign team in their shrewdest move of the week) that Romney was considering Condoleezza Rice for vice president. The media ran with it and, for 24 hours, the Condi rumor competed with Bain and Romney’s income tax returns for attention.

Once the media got finished with the Condi boomlet, they switched right back to Bain and tax returns, leaving the blogosphere to debate the merits of a Rice selection while the Obama team came right out and announced that they would continue to hack away at Romney. More and more talking heads leaped from asking why Romney cannot get his act together to asking if he is incapable – perhaps even incompetent as a candidate.

  • Read the news reports from the past week and you may agree with this Nebraska Democratic leader: “I can’t believe that Romney is just sitting there, giving Obama the chances to punch him all the time.” 
  • Here is what a major Democratic fundraiser in North Carolina said: “At first I thought it was the Romney campaign staff that was a problem and that Romney would figure it out or the guys at the RNC (Republican National Committee) would insist on changes. But the staff is just the tip of the iceberg. Romney is clueless.”

Shrug and mumble 

  • If you think these Democrats are over the top, what about these long-time Republicans? This comment is from a California GOP fundraiser: “Romney is helpless as a candidate. He cannot answer basic questions. He defers to his managers but they shrug and mumble. Nobody over there knows how to run a presidential campaign.”
  • From an Illinois GOP fundraiser comes this: “Most of us, pretty much, have given up on Romney pulling things together. We just have to hope that he can slip by.” 
  • A Texas Republican leader said recently: “We need more bad news about Obama and hope the press picks up on it. Romney cannot carry that water. Romney is not getting his own message out, so he will never be able to attack Obama seriously.” 
  • An Arizona Republican fundraiser: “What are they doing? You mean to tell me (that in) this whole party there are no better campaigners than this? This is disgraceful. If we miss this golden opportunity, I will not believe it.” 
  • To sum up, here is a Virginia Republican leader: “I now think that with Romney, what you see is what you get. Not much there, is there? The sort of frightening thing is that if he happens to win, he will think, and the people around him will think, that they did it. What we will have to deal with then is a confused president and disorganized administration. The confused part will not get better if Romney wins.”

Advice from a professional advice-giver 

  • Yesterday, an old Republican hand sipped his scotch at one of the Washington clubs catering to Republican Senators and Congressmen, big GOP contributors, lobbyists and political types. He is part of the GOP establishment, the people who want a Republican in the White House. They are less concerned about issues than winning the election. They thrive on influence, power and access, not issues. He said that he and some friends were looking toward 2016 and beyond. Already, they were meeting informally with potential 2016 or 2020 candidates. “Our guess is that Romney will not make it this year. The Obama people are too good at what Romney is no good at.” 
  • He ordered another and continued: “So we have a real chance in four years, after Obama screws it up even more. But the path to victory is narrower for a Republican. So we need a good candidate. What if Romney does get lucky? He will blow up as president and we will be looking at a Democrat beating him in 2016. So we need to have our ideal guy ready for 2020.”

Romney gets little respect in 2012, 2016 or 2020. The old guard is giving up on Romney and it is only mid-July.

Is Romney hiding something?

The good news for Romney? Republican old hands tend to go into a funk every four years. They pull out of it when the candidate shows signs of life. This year, the Romney team is making it harder than ever for the Republican old boys and old girls because the campaign shows so few signs of basic readiness. Quickness at getting response ads on television to counter Obama attacks is the high point. But the recent response ads are whiny, demanding an apology from the Obama campaign for the Bain attacks.

With Romney under attack because he refuses to release more tax returns, the party professionals are worrying. They say as much on national television. They worry that Romney could be – must be – hiding something. The cost of not releasing the returns is all too clear. Does Romney know or think that the cost of releasing the returns is even higher?

In this pessimistic environment, single decisions and single events can make all the difference. This year, the choice of his running mate may be the last chance that Romney gets to energize the disheartened Republican establishment.

Under such pressure, what will Romney do? Anything might happen. Romney may believe he must throw a Hail Mary pass. He could be tempted to replay the most successful Romney campaign tactic of the week: Condi Rice, anyone?


About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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