Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign was supposed to present a choice between a naïve president in “over his head” and a proven leader who knows how to fix the country.
So much for that narrative. It’s hard to imagine a worse argument for competence than the Romney campaign’s performance over the past few months.
Running a national campaign against a battle-tested incumbent, under oppressive media scrutiny, would be tough for anyone under any circumstances. For Romney, it seems a particularly big challenge. The notable failures on his résumé have been in the political arena (a losing Senate race in 1994 and a losing presidential race in 2008). His successes have come on other playing fields: founding and leading a venture-capital business that hinged on painstaking data analysis; cleaning up and raising money for an Olympics that two presidents and the whole country wanted to succeed; and necessarily governing as a pragmatist in a liberal Democratic state.
“Managing a presidential campaign is very different from managing Bain Capital. There are too many things that go on that you can’t control,” said Georgetown University’s Stephen Wayne, who has written 12 books on the presidency. He noted that Romney ran a poor primary campaign in 2008 and a better one in 2012, so he does seem to learn from his mistakes. But hardly anyone gets a second chance to run a general-election campaign.
“The problem for Romney is that running for president isn’t like anything else,” said former GOP aide John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. He added that some aspects of Romney’s bid are going well: “The simple logistics of getting things done and on time actually work better than most campaigns.”
Although the trains may run on schedule in RomneyWorld, the message has often gone off the rails. The topline examples were when he offended the British and Palestinians on a trip abroad; wheÂn he let Clint Eastwood hijack a key convention moment; when he neglected to mention U.S. troops and the Afghanistan war in his acceptance address; and when he attacked Obama as a tragedy unfolded in Libya. Then came the unfortunate videotape of a closed fundraiser this year in Boca Raton, Fla., in which Romney said that 47 percent of Americans expect government handouts and “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility” for their lives.
Beyond the gaffes, larger strategic questions loom over the campaign. Why didn’t Romney fight back on TV against early attacks that turned his Bain Capital career from an asset to an unmentionable? Why did he choose Paul Ryan as his running mate if he did not plan to highlight Ryan’s iconic conservative budget plan? Why did he box himself in on immigration in a way that alienated most Hispanics? Where are the big ideas of Romney’s campaign and the policy speeches to flesh them out? Where is his biography—his record as governor, his Olympics turnaround, his family and faith?
Some Republicans are in despair over Romney’s campaign, and 80 percent of GOP respondents in National Journal’s latest Political Insiders Poll conceded that Obama has a better team. There’s broad agreement that staying the course won’t work. “If Romney wants to change the conversation, he needs to do something very big and very different,” said Dan Schnur, a former GOP campaign aide who now heads the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. That’s unfamiliar turf, he added, for a candidate who achieved “tremendous success by being exceedingly cautious.”
Romney’s daring moves to date—among them Eastwood, the overseas trip, and the Ryan pick—do not make the case for abandoning caution. “At each point where the Romney campaign telegraphed that it was taking a turn that would solidify the sense of coherence, they have gone in the other direction and created more questions,” said Robert Schmuhl, an American studies professor at Notre Dame and the author of several books on politics. “You look at the Romney campaign and all of its problems and have to ask, if a campaign is so difficult, what will governing look like?”
Bad campaigns rarely produce winners, so it’s hard to know if the candidates who run them can make good presidents. But it is safe to say that the governing environment is even more challenging than a political campaign.
George C. Edwards, a Texas A&M professor who has written or edited 25 books on the presidency, rattled off a few reasons why. “Almost everyone with whom you deal is on your side” in a campaign, he said in an e-mail. “Most of the people at rallies are already going to vote for you. Campaigners want to win for a variety of reasons that drive them to work hard to accomplish a common goal. You do not have an opposition within the campaign such as you will soon face in Congress. And even the most extensive campaigns are tiny compared to the Pentagon.”
Campaigns do preview whom candidates might place in an administration and how they might handle unexpected events and crises. Romney has been less than reassuring on both fronts. Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who teaches campaign management at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, said that Romney responded to criticism of the leaked fundraiser tape and mistimed attack on Obama over the embassy attacks by digging in—a violation of an operative’s adage that “if you’re going to open your mouth, you shouldn’t just change feet.” The better course is to acknowledge the problem and move on, he said, but “it seems like there’s nobody on the team who says, ‘Knock it off, Mitt.’ ”
Wayne said that Romney’s public statements raise questions about whether he has poor judgment in advisers or poor judgment in himself. Voters prize predictability and stability in the Oval Office, he said, and “all of this is a little bit unnerving.”
One of the most striking lines of Ann Romney’s convention speech was her firm assurance to the nation that “this man will not fail.” The campaign he’s running does not instill confidence in her words.
This article appears in the September 22, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.