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The last two weeks have landed Mitt Romney in some real political trouble, and his responses—though drawn straight from the political consultant’s handbook—have fallen flat in a way that threatens to damage him much more than the incidents, taken on their own, would suggest.
In late June, the Washington Post ran a devastating story about how Bain Capital had invested in firms that specialize in outsourcing American jobs. A few days later, the Romney campaign demanded a retraction, and made a big show of meeting with the Post’s editors and releasing a memo that was intended to establish their case. Their request was denied.
Then, last week, the Boston Globe reported that SEC documents show Romney had remained chairman and chief executive of Bain Capital for at least three years longer than he claimed—important because much of the Bain outsourcing that’s become such a controversy occurred during this period, and Romney’s defense is that he had already “retired.” The Romney campaign demanded a retraction and was again denied.
Last Friday, as the Bain controversy took center stage, Romney hastily arranged five interviews with networks and major cable stations to respond to questions about his Bain tenure and why he won’t release more tax information. Romney didn’t have anything new to say—he repeated his refusal to release more than the two years’ worth of tax returns he’d already promised—and instead wound up demanding an apology from President Obama, whose campaign, he claimed, had impugned his integrity. Once more, Romney was shut down.
Each of these moves has a certain logic behind it. Romney can’t afford for voters to see him as having profited from outsourcing American jobs. Nor can he be seen as having run Bain between 1999-2002 because his defense against the outsourcing charge rests on his claim that he was gone by then. And having made up his mind not to release more tax returns—but feeling compelled to go on television Friday anyway—Romney instead attempted the political equivalent of an NBA player flopping to catch the ref’s attention and draw a charge by demanding that Obama apologize for the mean things said about him.
But Romney failed in each of these instances and now looks ineffectual. As Josh Marshall notes, “the Obama camp has backed Romney into a position in which he looks ridiculous—something much more lethal for presidential candidates than most people appreciate.” David Frum adds that on policy matters, “at every point, Romney has surrendered to the fringe of his party.” The danger for Romney is that voters won’t parse these episodes but will instead conclude, based on their overall impression of his squealing and inability to get results, that Romney is a wimp. This is a charge that famously dogged another establishment Republican:
It’s not clear Romney can do much to prove he wasn’t running Bain between ’99 and ’02. An article in today’s New York Times notes that 142 documents have surfaced tying Romney to the ownership of the firm during this period. Nor can he shut down the criticism and speculation surrounding his tax returns if he refuses to release more than he’s promised.
So how to shake the wimp factor? The best idea I’ve heard comes from Irwin M. Stelzer in the Weekly Standard who suggests that Romney go after corrupt bankers like those behind the Libor scandal. This would allow him to get tough on an issue where outrage is warranted, the public will side with him, and the politics cut against his fast-solidifying image as someone who cares only about protecting the interests of his own economic class. Doing so would also, Stelzer points out, be perfectly consistent with the pro-market capitalism Romney espouses.
In fact, it’s hard to see any drawbacks. The Libor bankers can’t possibly fight back, so it’s one fight that Romney can pick and be reasonably assured he won’t come out of it looking like a wimp.