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Politico’s explosive new story about chaos in Mitt Romney’s struggling campaign poses the question as to whether the GOP nominee has failed to deploy his vaunted business skills—and implies that the answer is “yes.” After all, Romney’s executive know-how was supposed to be his greatest political asset. But he’s trailing President Obama in most polls, and that’s being taken as prima facie evidence that it has deserted him or that he’s not deploying it.
I don’t buy it. Romney’s problem is not that he’s brought too little executive rigor to the job of running for president. It’s that he’s brought too much. He’s behaved too much like a businessman (or a consultant) and not enough like a politician. His campaign has all the hallmarks of being run by someone looking only at the numbers, someone who lacks a true politician’s appreciation for the other dimensions of a race—a feel for the electorate, a convincing long-term plan for the country. Were he forced to defend himself before a board of directors, Romney would actually have a pretty solid case for doing what he has done. Consider his positions:
The Economy Stinks. History says the weak recovery and high unemployment are Obama’s biggest vulnerabilities, and Romney has appropriately hammered away at them. Americans agree: Most think the country is on the wrong track. (Although the economy isn’t nearly as bad as he claims.)
China is a Menace. Romney has taken such an aggressive stance toward China that his business allies worry he’ll spark a trade war if elected. Romney knows this. So why go so hard after China? Because it’s potent medicine in critical Rust Belt swing states. (Reality check: It’s also highly doubtful he’d follow through on his threats.)
Protect Medicare. Romney—and especially his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.)—would like to cut Medicare and other popular entitlements. But in this race, they’re running to Obama’s left, promising to restore the $716 billion cuts made under Obama’s health care law. (And forcing Ryan, who’d previously endorsed the cuts, to flip-flop.) Their motivation: Medicare’s broad popularity.
At the same time, Romney has scrupulously avoided committing to anything that is remotely unpopular, such as naming which tax loopholes he’d close to pay for his agenda. That is to say, he is doing just about everything a close reading of the polls says you should do, and he’s trying hard not to do anything the polls say you shouldn’t do. If a team of Bain consultants were hustled in to pore over the data and devise a strategy, I doubt they would have devised a meaningfully different campaign.
The problem is that politics is about much more than a tactical, short-term reading of the numbers. Candidate skills matter, and the audience in a presidential election is much more variegated than a board of directors. There isn’t much, frankly, that a stiff guy can do to make himself warm and approachable. (Earth tones, anyone?) The glaring weaknesses in Romney’s campaign—the fuzzy details, the inability to convincingly articulate plan for growth, and above all the weird tics and gaffes—are not ones that a businessman’s skills can rectify.