Mitt Romney has only a few days to change the narrative of his campaign.
The decisions Romney makes in mid-July are going to determine whether or not he even has a shot to win this November. Forget the VP choice, forget the debates, forget the ad campaigns and get-out-the-vote, forget the economy--short of another 1929. In the mind of the public, Romney is being negatively and permanently defined right now, in a way that recalls how Dan Quayle was everlastingly defined in those first few days after Bush 41 picked him as his running mate in 1988. Quayle never recovered; the once-rising-Republican star failed to ever win another political campaign on his own.
Today, the drip, drip, drip of disclosures is, to put it bluntly, killing Romney’s campaign.
If this dripping continues, few Republicans are going to want to step up and defend their presumed leader, fearful that there’s another bombshell to come, leaving them looking like fools or dupes for defending Romney. In fact, the reality of Bain Capital investments--involving, as they did, public and private pension funds, with fiduciary responsibilities spelled out in $750-an-hour lawyerly detail--means that enormous paper trails exist in files all over the country, soon to come cascading into public view.
As Stephanie Cutter, the Obama campaign’s “f-word”--“felony”--hit-woman, said in an unapologetic and triumphant appearance on “Face the Nation” earlier today: “the simple point is, if you're telling the SEC you're in charge but you’re telling the American people that you bear no responsibility, one of those things is not true.” That’s the narrative that the media--and at this rate, the country--is subscribing to.
Meanwhile, Romney supporters are now reduced to too-clever-by-half formulations that recall the words of another president, Bill Clinton, who wished to hair-split the meaning of what the meaning of “is” is. Just this morning, good soldier Ed Gillespie, for example, appeared on two networks, declaring that Romney had “retroactively retired” from Bain in 2002, not 1999.
Is that the new Romney position? If so, about two million follow-up questions can be derived, the most of immediate of which is: if he “retroactively retired,” does that mean that Romney gave back all the money that he made during those years?
It’s fair to say that the vast majority of MSM reporters have wanted Obama to win all along, but now any journalist is naturally curious as to what really happened at Bain during those three years, 1999-2002, as well as over the three-decade life of the company. Journos love to solve puzzles, and this a fun puzzle. To put it another way, reporters can shine their liberal bias through the prism of “full disclosure” and achieve the goal of clobbering Romney without looking like ideological crusaders.
Is all this unfair to Romney? Are the media focusing on relatively small things, while ignoring big things? Sure. Leaving the reality of a lousy economy aside, or the prospect of a nuclear Iran--or any number of other policy concerns--we can easily see a horrendous double standard about “full disclosure.” Barack Obama has never owned up to his associations with such Illinois lowlifes as Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, and Rod Blagojevich--and he has gotten away with it. In addition, has gotten away with stonewalling, or at least deflecting, the blame on “Fast and Furious,” “crony capitalism,” “green jobs,” and his rogue EPA. So let’s just say it: Obama is less deserving of re-election than any incumbent since Jimmy Carter. However, if present trends continue, the President will, in fact, win re-election.
So what can Romney do? How to save his campaign? First off, the Romneyites need to stop trying to use second-tier advisers to speak for them, such as Gillespie and John Sununu--the latter having his own negatives piled up over a quarter-century in the public eye. Indeed, it’s too late for even first-tier Romney advisers--those guys in Boston we never see--to stop the bleeding.
(UPDATE: Nor will the Romney counter-attack based on Obama cronyism that launched Monday morning stop the bleeding. The new Romney attack is good, and will rally the GOP base a little, but it’s not going to rewrite the national “Bain Pain” narrative. Similarly, Romney’s appearance on, say “Fox & Friends” is not going to alter the onslaught.)
Instead, what’s needed now is for Romney himself to step up to the plate: He needs to hold a press conference to answer all the questions from the most cynical and hostile of reporters. Like Daniel entering the lions’ den, he needs to face his accusers--those who want to eat him alive. It will be his toughest presentation ever, but he has to do it. ASAP.
And it could work. There’s good precedent: immediately after Walter Mondale picked her as his running mate at the San Francisco Democratic convention of 1984, Geraldine Ferraro was attacked in the media for being part of a mobbed-up family. Soon there was serious speculation that she would be driven off the national ticket, as was Tom Eagleton in 1972.
So what did Ferraro do? She took on her journalistic accusers in the only way possible--she answered their questions. On August 21, 1984, she held a press conference that lasted nearly two hours, in front of 200 reporters. She answered all the questions, even pushing back when reporters made themselves look like hyenas--which, of course, was often. And so, by using reporters as a foil, she made herself into the underdog, the wronged woman, the victim. She gained a sympathy vote, and survived on Mondale’s ticket.
Did Ferraro really answer all the questions? No. In fact, the very next year, 1985, her husband pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining bank-loan financing. So, at minimum, there was at least some scandal-fire under that smoke. Indeed, the mob allegations damaged her so much that not only did she never seek the presidency in her own right--as veep nominees often do--but she also failed in two different efforts to win the Democratic nomination to the US Senate. Yet even so, three decades later, Ferraro’s 1984 presser is regarded as a classic piece of crisis-management.
So this is what Romney needs to do--he needs to pull a Ferraro. And soon, as in the next few days.
Romney needs to stand up, for as long as is necessary, and answer every question from his tormentors. Could the press conference last two hours? Five hours? Ten hours? Might they have to call it a night and start it up again the next morning? Maybe. Who knows--but it doesn’t matter. Romney would have to endure it. When reporters yell at him, as they would, he needs to stay calm, stick to his guns--and shoot back. Just as Ferraro did.
And, over time, in the midst of this bizarro gladiatorial spectacle, folks watching would start to root for Romney--rich as he is, he would be the underdog in this fight. As with Ferraro, Romney wouldn’t have to answer every question to the satisfaction of his critics; instead, he would have to answer every question to the satisfaction of his supporters, and swing voters--together, if they are satisfied with his answers, they will be enough to give him victory in November.
After all, the public admires a leader who can stand in the arena, bloodied but unbowed. As Kipling wrote, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs... you’ll be a Man.”
The questions, to be sure, will not just be about his 1999-2002 involvement with Bain, but also about outsourcing, his income taxes, the vision thing, you name it. Daunting? Sure. Necessary? You betcha.
In the 2000 movie “Gladiator,” Russell Crowe, playing Maximus said, “At my signal, unleash hell." That’s what will, indeed, be unleashed on Romney. But if Romney survives this media ordeal, if he survives the hellish questions, he will have proven something that he hasn’t yet proven--that he’s a tough man, bold enough to fight his way out of a trap, strong enough to be an effective president.