Mitt Romney has just revealed that he averaged a 20 percent tax rate over 20 years, thanks to an assortment of breaks and giveaways from Congress. Talk about a government dependency.
But the Republican nominee’s long-awaited tax records -- actually just a summary of them, provided by his accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers -- are the least of his problems right now. The issue that President Obama’s campaign made such a hoo-ha about a couple of months ago has long since been eclipsed by a much bigger challenge (although the Romney team’s failure, even now, to answer many of the questions about the candidate’s accounting legerdemain and offshore shelters, especially for the period before he began running for office, is contributing to that challenge).
With the campaign entering the final stretch, Romney’s problem is not what his tax accountants have been doing for the past 20 years as much as it is what he’s failed to do in the last 20 days or so, especially since his nomination: make himself a viable alternative to Barack Obama. He has failed to persuade people that he will be a better president, despite deep discontent with the incumbent’s record. He has failed to come up with a compelling enough vision, or new enough ideas, to fuel a campaign that, since Romney’s tepid and forgettable acceptance speech in Tampa, has simply not achieved liftoff.
Above all, Romney has failed to raise the number of Americans who like him above the number who do not, and the lingering tax issue is only a small part of that. Perhaps the single most astonishing figure to stand out from the Republican candidate’s sliding poll numbers in recent days is that he has actually lost ground in the favorable/unfavorable ratings, slipping 5 percentage points in September, according to the Pew Research Center. Every Republican and Democratic candidate since 1988 -- even President George H.W. Bush during his losing reelection campaign in 1992 -- has gained ground in September. With a September rating (so far) of 50 percent negative, 45 percent positive (compared to Obama’s 55 percent favorable versus 42 percent unfavorable), Romney ranks as the first challenger in memory to have higher unfavorable than favorable numbers this late in the race. “Going back to at least 1988, no previous candidate has been in negative territory at this point in the campaign,” Pew reported.
These grim figures have transformed the race in recent days from one that was, for many months, too close to call into one in which Romney must be deemed an underdog, running a sputtering campaign that even top Republican pundits think is desperately in need of a turnaround. The still-lingering mystery over Romney’s tax history is part of this problem, of course, solidifying the image of a candidate who both seems too removed from the lives of ordinary Americans and who is also not quite ready for prime time, given all the misstatements he seems to make on issues both foreign and domestic.
Mitt Romney can no longer afford this image, that is clear. And yet there are questions both about how much he himself understands that and whether he has enough time now, with just six weeks left, to do what he has neglected to do in the four years since his failed 2008 run: sell himself convincingly. Romney, asked about his campaign’s troubles on 60 Minutes, insisted, “It doesn’t need a turnaround. We’ve got a campaign which is tied with an incumbent president to the United States.” He said his plan is to “go forward with my message.”
Yet the evidence so far is that merely going forward, at least at his current rate of speed, may not be enough to propel Romney into the White House. Good thing he’s got those congressionally supplied jobless -- er, tax-- benefits to fall back on.