Mitt Romney is in political trouble. He has allowed Mitt Romney to become the story. Again.
Barack Obama has middling public approval ratings and the economy continues to struggle. His signature act as president, an expansive health care law, survived by one vote on the Supreme Court last week and is opposed by about half of Americans.
By all rights, he should be behind by 10 points in the polls. But he’s not.
Consensus among pollsters shows Obama ahead of Romney by about 3 points. And he’s on a bus tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania yesterday and today touting his policies and blasting Romney. He’s got the momentum it seems.
The last four weeks tell us why.
In April, May, and early June, jobs reports showed the U.S. economy slowing after some positive signs in early 2012, and leading Democrats were criticizing the Obama campaign. Too much focus on private equity and Romney’s work at Bain Capital, several decried. Not enough forward-looking, others said. And not connecting with working-class whites.
Perfect for Romney: Obama was the story.
On June 15, things turned.
That morning, Obama announced an executive action on immigration, declaring that the Department of Homeland Security would allow undocumented children brought to America before age 16 to get work permits for two years, with renewals possible.
The Romney camp wasn’t ready: he couldn’t further push away Latinos, who had been turned off by his hard-line rhetoric during the primaries. But neither could he appear “soft” and thus anger strong conservatives who are already skeptical of him. So he punted: he criticized the politics of Obama’s act but refused to say what he’d do about the policy.
Romney got another crack at immigration a week later, on June 21, when he addressed Latino elected officials from across the country. Vague commitments to immigration reform did not wow them. On June 25 the Supreme Court overturned most of Arizona’s tough immigration law, and Romney was nowhere to be found. For six hours, the Romney campaign refused to issue a response. Included in that span was an epic 7-minute-long non-answer exchange with the press by Romney spokesman Rick Gorka. Finally, Romney spoke and said only that states should have more “latitude” on such laws.
The meme was building: Romney won’t take a position. Ana Navarro, a Republican consultant who was the McCain campaign’s National Hispanic co-Chair in 2008, has watched all this unfold. On July 2 she tweeted:
Romney risks losing I’s & even R’s on immigration. Not b/c of what he stands 4, but b/c he doesn’t take a damn stand nyti.ms/LewRgA
— Ana Navarro (@ananavarro) July 2, 2012
Romney had made himself the story. Bad move.
On the economic side, the Washington Post ran a story June 21 in which it claimed that Romney and Bain Capital were “pioneers” in outsourcing work to other companies and to workers overseas. The Obama campaign jumped on it, predictably. But then the Romney camp made it a bigger story, by arguing over the semantics of “offshoring” vs. “outsourcing.” They even requested a retraction from the Post–a desperate Hail Mary that went unanswered.
Romney was again the focus.
On June 28, the Supreme Court ruled that Obama’s health care law was constitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts’ claim that the health care’s centerpiece, the mandate to force people to purchase insurance, was legal as a tax was seized by Republicans as their line of attack on Obama. One problem: Romney wasn’t onboard.
Worried that he’d be called a tax raiser because as Massachusetts governor he passed a similar law, Romney and allies said the mandate was a penalty, not a tax. They then argued with leading Republicans for a week, until Romney told CBS News Wednesday that it actually is a tax — in Obama’s law, but not his.
The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board blasted Romney yesterday for his mental gymnastics and poor communications since the health care decision. Spotlight on Romney again.
And then on Tuesday Romney’s offshore bank accounts were the focus of a Vanity Fair article. Cayman Islands, Switzerland. There might be something interesting about these accounts, there might not. But again the Romney camp isn’t talking: their response Thursday was to call any claims of nefarious activity to be “false and ridiculous.”
That’s a start for a political pushback. But no details were offered. Until they are, Obama and the press will push until Romney releases a mountain of personal tax data.
I have a feeling of deja vu about all of this.
This past month looks a lot like Romney’s one really bad stretch during the Republican primary season: the week before the South Carolina primary. That week he refused to release tax records, didn’t answer questions well on his finances, and was seen as, well, less than forthcoming. That week Newt Gingrich and his Super-PAC allies unleashed a set of attacks on Bain. That week Romney was the focus.
Romney entered that week with a comfortable lead in South Carolina polls and with Jon Huntsman exiting the race. He ended the week having lost South Carolina to Gingrich by double-digits.
To Romney’s credit, his campaign righted the ship the following week in Florida. They need to do the same, and soon. Romney isn’t running against Gingrich anymore.