Get used to saying it for four more years: “President Barack Obama.” Love the idea, hate the idea, or yawn at it, assuming the fallout over same-sex marriage doesn't land in unexpected places, Obama's looking more re-electable than he has all spring. Or rather, Mitt Romney is looking less electable.
The reasons don’t lie in the big issues that have by turns been deemed determinative of the outcome — not health care, Afghanistan, gay marriage, or even the economy. They lie in Mitt Romney’s mouth — in his newly revealed genius for shooting it off in ways that, fairly or not, make him seem not just goofy, tone-deaf, and out of touch (we knew all that) but petty and peevish, and a glory-hogging revisionist to boot.
Romney has broken several cardinal rules of campaigning: Don’t claim credit, especially when you don’t deserve it or your opponents can make a case you don’t (which means just about always). Don’t try to debunk a sitting president’s popular triumphs, at least not in your own voice. If you must cast doubt, that’s what surrogates are for.
Worse yet, don’t do both at once: Don’t try to claim credit for those successes yourself. That’s fighting with the president on his home turf, where you’ll always lose.
Romney has crossed all these lines in the past few days. In the process he’s managed to channel Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, and Al Gore, three of the most dismal precedents possible.
Each time Romney was trying to justify years-old gloomy statements that may have been defensible, even sensible, at the time, but were glaringly overtaken by events. But instead of digging himself out by graciously conceding the glory that Obama already owned, Romney only dug himself in deeper.
Campaigning in 2007, Romney attacked Obama for declaring he would go after Osama bin Laden in Pakistan: “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
Whoops. In April 2011 Obama directed the raid that did just that, without spending billions or moving much more than a Navy Seal squad. As the anniversary approached, the Democrats inevitably rolled out an ad celebrating Obama’s resolve on the path to Abbottabad and asking, “Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?” Romney could have stopped after explaining that, to protect relations with Pakistan, he didn’t want to telegraph his plans to get bin Laden. Or he could have simply said, “I salute what the president did. I would have done the same thing.”
Instead he pooh-poohed Obama’s triumph, invoking a bogey who incenses Republican ideologues but not ordinary voters: “Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.” The subtext: Democrats are weak, Obama’s a Democrat, so even if he took out Osama, he’s still weak.
That evokes two unwanted comparisons. One flatters Obama, and the other disfavors Romney. Carter actually did order a similar raid, Desert One, to rescue the American embassy hostages in Tehran. It failed, making Carter look incompetent. Obama’s raid succeeded, so he’s competent. That may not be fair, but as Jimmy Carter said, “Life is unfair.”
Meanwhile, Romney’s grousing made him sound like … Jimmy Carter. Thrusting himself onto a field he should have avoided made him look like John Kerry, who, despite a controversial war record, presented himself as a war hero “reporting for duty” in 2004.
Romney own-goaled himself again this week over another statement that’s come back to haunt him. Shortly after the 2008 election, he published an op-ed in The New York Times declaring, “If General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for on Tuesday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won't go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.” Instead, Romney urged, they should undergo bankruptcy and restructuring first, then (if they could ever have gotten private financing, amidst a financial freefall, to see them through the bankruptcy) seek loan guarantees. The Times slapped on a pithy headline: “Let Detroit go bankrupt.”
The Obama administration rescued GM and Chrysler and put them through bankruptcy. Whatever the moral hazard, it worked; they’ve not only survived, they’ve thrived. Romney, on the defensive in key Rustbelt states, could have said his approach would have rescued the car industry as well. But again he overdid it. In an interview with a Cleveland TV station Monday, he suggested, incredibly, that Obama got the idea of putting the car companies through bankruptcy from his op-ed: “I pushed the idea of a managed bankruptcy, and finally when that was done and help was given, the companies got back on their feet. So I'll take a lot of credit for the fact that this industry's come back.”
Shades of Al Gore, with one difference: Gore never actually claimed to have invented the Internet. And this was no random gaffe; it’s a calculated talking point. Two weeks ago, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom —he of the notorious “Etch-a-Sketch” school of political revisionism — told the Washington Post, “His position on the bailout was exactly what President Obama followed. He said, ‘If you want to save the auto industry, just don’t write them a check.’… The only economic success that President Obama has had, is because he followed Mitt Romney’s advice.”
This revision is so brazen as to seem desperate — unless, as Fehrnstrom says, any past position can be scrubbed from the record. And it invites another unwelcome comparison, to the health care plan Romney pushed through in Massachusetts. That really was a model for Obama’s health plan, which Romney has since been obliged to bash.
It’s surprising the Democrats and the liberal punditocracy haven’t jumped harder on this. But it’s early yet. And if they miss this shot, it looks like Romney will give them plenty more.