As we've said before, the first set of tasks in a political campaign are simply summarized: Define yourself, define your opponent, define the stakes of the race. The 2012 race has been fairly interesting thus far, in that the challenger candidate, Mitt Romney, has not seemed able -- or perhaps the right word is "willing" -- to engage in these tasks.

For his nominal allies, it has not been an easy spectacle to watch. That said, there's some indication that Romney has figured out that he's supposed to be doing at least some of this sort of work.

For some time now, conservatives have been somewhat aggrieved by the way the Romney camp hasn't done much to establish his core identity in the race. We've sort of generically dated the beginning of this outpouring of discontent with Peggy Noonan's June 1 op-ed, in which she wrote, "Mr. Romney has to give us a plan. He has to tell us his priorities. To lead is to prioritize, to choose."

From there, it became rather popular for conservative pundits to raise the same concerns. The matter escalated considerably when Team Obama Re-Elect mounted its attacks on Romney's history with Bain Capital, and Romney responded by ... conceding the space to Obama's allies to make the attacks.

Things came to a head this week, when Charlie Cook's observations on the matter started off the news cycle with this detonation:

The strategic decision by the Romney campaign not to define him personally -- not to inoculate him from inevitable attacks -- seems a perverse one. Given his campaign’s ample financial resources, the decision not to run biographical or testimonial ads, in effect to do nothing to establish him as a three-dimensional person, has left him open to the inevitable attacks for his work at Bain Capital, on outsourcing, and on his investments. It’s all rather inexplicable. Aside from a single spot aired in the spring by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, not one personal positive ad has been aired on Romney’s behalf. The view that any day or dollar spent on talking about anything other than the economy is a waste has been taken to such an extreme that Romney has no positive definition other than that of being a rich, successful, and presumably smart businessman. People see and feel the reasons for firing Obama every day in the economic statistics and the struggle that so many Americans face daily. The Romney campaign seems focused on reinforcing a message that hardly needs reinforcing, while ignoring a clear and immediate danger to its own candidate’s electability.

Businessweek's Joshua Green followed hard upon this with an article about Romney's "wimp factor," and the news cycle evolved into a steady drumbeat of GOP figures badgering Romney for his failure to release tax returns -- a tangential matter, but one that still related to Romney's unwillingness to fill the vacuum.

But now that the murmur had built itself into a din, the Romney camp finally acted. Its initial response, however, was a little lacking: Romney's team indicated that it was poised to go "full Breitbart" and resurrect the old, wild-eyed nonsense of the 2008 campaign. The name "Tony Rezko" got dropped on a conference call. Campaign surrogate John Sununu got deep into the Dinesh D'Souzan weeds, calling Obama un-American. The Romney camp seemed, for a time, to be genuinely poised to unleash a barrage of negativity -- the kind that frosts the affections of independent voters. As Kevin Drum put it: "Operation 'Piss Off Mitt' Seems to be Working."

We eyerolled, "Wow, Obama should be so lucky." But the luck didn't endure, and after a couple decent weeks on the offensive, the president gave Romney the material he needed to get off his duff and start hustling again, when Obama, riffing on a set of themes concerning the interplay between government and the public's largesse in making the private sector a success, offered up this statement: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Slate's Dave Weigel traced the way that statement slowly made its way into Romney's consciousness. It doesn't really need to be said that we've got another one of those examples of merely poor phrasing that ballooned into a reductio ad absurdum political weapon.

At the same time, is anyone really surprised that Obama wields this sort of language with considerably less deftness than, say, Elizabeth Warren? The irony here is that while Romney wants to depict Obama here as the embodiment of class warfare run amok, the president actually does not have a deep connection to or facility with these kinds of populist arguments. But he ends up getting portrayed by Romney as a wilder, more radical version of himself, anyway.

But Romney was smart to seize the moment and make hay. He ends the week with all those tormentors on the right off his back and back to cheering him from the sidelines.

The one thing we'd point out, however, is that Romney is still reacting instead of acting. Sure, the points you score when your opponent turns the ball over get counted. They're not unimportant.

But Romney still needs to start creating his own shots. And he still needs to take a proactive stance on defining who he is at his core and what he wants to do. David Brooks still wants Romney to provide an affirmative defense of Bain Capital(ism).

Peggy Noonan, in all likelihood, still wants priorities. The fact that it seemed as if the first nonpassive move for members of the Romney camp was to briefly rush off into 2008's fever swamp is telling; they don't seem to actually have a plan, yet.


Or maybe Romney does have a strategy? It could be that the lesson that the Romney camp has extracted from the primary season is that he can withstand all manner of personal attacks so long as he has 10 times the amount of cash on hand at the right moment to drown out his competition. That's easy enough to do when you're facing Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and they're either close to skint or upside down in debt.

But Obama will have cash to toss around, too -- even at the end. In general, we're not inclined toward this strategy. But candidates with the sort of wealth that Romney commands are very rare. For all we know, the rules don't apply.


Is everyone done talking about Bain Capital, yet? Ha, ha: No. Not by a long shot. That's a product of Romney providing the press with an interesting puzzle to solve and then not filling in any of the details affirmatively, when he's been given a million chances to do so.

So, the extant question is and shall remain: What involvement did Mitt Romney have with Bain Capital during the period he was tending to the Olympics. The Romney camp's generic response has been to wave the matter away by saying that he had no time to do anything else but bring bobsledding to America, a curious admission from a guy seeking the ultimate multitasking job.

Still, it's sort of understandable. Bain Capital is presumably staffed by capable managers who can tend to the matters of Bain Capital whether Romney is micromanaging their efforts or not. Everyone can get their head around that. It's still pretty clear that Romney's involvement with Bain is not "the null set," however. His name went on various and sundry filings, he was offered up as the Head Capitalist in Charge to various regulators, and there were presumably moments when Romney was briefly briefed on how things were going.

Romney has been periodically under attack for the goings-on at Bain during his Olympics work, dating back to his gubernatorial bid. His defense is well-worn and was sufficiently backed up so that when the attack came again from Team Obama Re-Elect, fact-checkers were well-armed to slap Romney's tormentors with Pinocchios.

Funny thing, though, about reporters. They keep reporting. And over the past few weeks, they've been working at adding to what we know about Romney's Bain involvement and when Romney was involved.

Brendan Nyhan noted that this matter has demonstrated that our fact-checking industry has limits to its utility. Fact-checkers, Nyhan observed, often "help create controversies that paradoxically increase the attention paid to misleading charges." That, in turn creates incentives for political dark artists to "intentionally make misleading claims" in order to run up the "earned media" scoreboard.

Nyhan went on to point out that it's important to remember that fact-checkers and reporters are not on the same team, and that even as the fact-checkers were rendering judgments, reporters were picking over the ticktock of Romney's involvement with Bain, and taking up Romney's "lack of consistency in describing his role at Bain in the 1999-2002 period."

This week, Daily Intel's Jonathan Chait sort of got caught between and betwixt with the Bain story as it was developing, and responded to the new revelations with his typical thoughtful candor. When Chait started off on his effort to explain "What's True and False in Obama's Bain Attacks," he came down hard on Obama: "President Obama and his allies instead have attacked Romney’s record itself," wrote Chait, "And what they’re saying is, on the basis of the facts available to us, untrue."

In the hours after Chait published, however, a lot of interesting new facts became available. Chait went back and added an update: "Numerous revelations today cast severe doubt on Romney's claim to have abandoned any role with Bain in 1999. I'll reevaluate again soon, but as of now it looks like the rigid distinction between Bain's work before his leave of absence and after -- the distinction that forms the basis of all the fact-checkers' judgments that Obama's ad is false -- has crumbled."

So here's one important lesson: We too often give fact-checkers the "final say" on an issue. We shouldn't necessarily do that, though. Reporters are still reporting!

Nyhan moved to this question, posed by Nick Baumann: "Is it possible that even without day-to-day managerial control, Mitt Romney may bear some moral or personal responsibility for the actions of Bain Capital post-1999, given that no one is disputing that he benefited financially from its actions and that his name was on the door? Is that question even fact-checkable?"

And Nyhan responded thusly:

The answer to the latter question, in fact, is no, which highlights the second limitation of fact-checking. Readers are often frustrated with the narrow and seemingly pedantic nature of fact-checking by watchdogs like PolitiFact and, which typically focus on the specifics of a given claim rather than the larger issue or debate in question. But there’s a good reason for the narrow focus of the genre -- broader questions about significance and responsibility are simply beyond their purview and cannot be answered within the realm of facts.

Right there is the path forward to the larger and more interesting question for Romney. Does Romney not believe in what Bain was doing? Does he disagree with the business practices that were practiced during the 1999-2002 period? Did Bain suddenly become something in which he could no longer take pride? Something that would prompt him to make the claim that he had "retroactively retired?"

And we can extract a pretty important question from Chait's work as well -- to be directed at the Obama campaign. As Chait wrote, "The existence of a 'larger truth' does not justify the Obama campaign’s ads that assume a role that they haven't proven and probably isn't accurate." Our question would be "Did the Obama camp know that there was enough left for reporters to uncover, beyond what the fact-checkers had found, when they made the attacks? If so, did the Obama campaign help those reporters out? If not, didn't they just luck out, after playing fast and loose with the facts?


So, welcome, everyone, to the end of the Bain attacks life cycle of effectiveness. (Maybe.) This week is ending with a spate of bad polling news for Obama. Once again, the race is tightening, with Romney taking a lead in the latest CBS/New York Times poll. (Once again, Obama's ahead in the Fox News poll and behind in the New York Times poll, making everyone question their tribal politics.)

As Sam Stein reported, Obama's having trouble with the economy. (As always, we'll point out that Obama's "trouble with the economy" is not the same "trouble" that the rest of you are experiencing.):

Romney leads Obama among respondents by a margin of 49 percent to 41 percent on who can best handle the economy and jobs. People who think the economy is getting better dropped from 33 percent in April to 24 percent now -- owed largely to a series of bad jobs reports.

Obama is perceived as the candidate who can best help the middle class, with 52 percent citing the president on that question, including 15 percent of Republicans. But even then, he gets a heaping of blame for not turning the economy around. Almost two-thirds of respondents said the president's policies contributed to the economic downturn. Only 17 percent of respondents said the president's policies on the economy were "improving it now."

Per Stein: "The economy, in short, is drowning out the political conversation surrounding Romney's private equity career, at least on the national level." Of course, that is as it should be. And the "Bain attacks" should be understood in this context: They are a tactical gambit, designed to give Obama time and space to close the gap on the larger matter of the economy.

Additionally, the "Bain attacks" should be understood as part of a larger series of strategic moves that will eventually end in a poorly defined Romney holding the bag for a whole slew of unpopular GOP "solutions." Already, Team Obama Re-Elect is moving to a discussion of what Romney would do to Medicare, which is the next part of a longer game plan.

Still, the nation is now leaving the fiscal quarter that political science has found is most critical to voters as they decide on whether they'll leave Obama in charge or not. Was the economy particularly awesome during these past three months? Not really.

There's also something to be said about how costly a negative attack can be on the negative attacker. (Though we'd gently criticize this piece from The Week -- which takes up that matter -- for persisting in its belief that Obama, in 2008, wasn't a negative campaigner. He was.)


Rich people are doing very awesomely. As Ezra Klein reported (and graphed), "in 2010, 93 percent of income gains went to the top 1 percent."

In other words, the very rich had a bad 2009, but an incredible 2010. Their share of national income bounced back to 19.77 percent. So inequality is marching upward once again. And there’s reason to believe this will keep going.

It sure seems awfully silly that Joe the Plumber was so concerned over Obama's talk of "moving the wealth around." The wealth is clearly moving in the precise direction Joe the Plumber wanted. (Which is, specifically, "away from actual plumbers.")


Interesting confluence of small-ball news stories this week. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is polling at about 5 percent nationally. In New Mexico, where he served as governor, he's up to 13 percent. Meanwhile, President Obama's lead in New Mexico, over Romney, is shrinking.

According to the conventional wisdon, this isn't what's supposed to be happening. Johnson is supposed to help deliver New Mexico's votes to Obama. But Johnson has never characterized himself as an election-year spoiler and has always maintained that he'd pull votes from both Romney and Obama.

As Johnson told our own Lucia Graves, "The idea is to actually win." He's not crazy for suggesting this was possible. Unlike the lion's share of vapid, third party efforts (looking at you, Americans Elect!), Johnson has been very careful, thoughtful, and specific in defining the ways he presents a contrast to both the big party candidates.

You can read Lucia's interview with Johnson here.


Okay, time once again for your Speculatronners to make their trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, an analysis of prevailing economic trends, guesstimates and careful study of animal entrails under the guidance of experienced augurs from ancient legend.

So, this week, the economy is dragging Obama down. Romney is faring better in New Hampshire and Virginia. Obama shows life in Nevada and Wisconsin. New Mexico's tightening. So, we'll go with this:


Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?

Loading Slideshow...
  • NASCAR Friends

    At the Daytona 500 race, Mitt Romney's <a href="" target="_hplink">attempt to connect with voters went awry</a> when he admitted that he didn't follow racing as closely as "some of the most ardent fans." "But I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners," he added. At the same event, he told a group of fans wearing plastic ponchos, "I like those fancy raincoats you bought. Really sprung for the big bucks." Romney later <a href="" target="_hplink">defended the comment</a>, saying, "Look, I have worn a garbage bag for rain gear myself."

  • Loving The Height Of Michigan's Trees

    Romney campaigned through Michigan ahead of the state's GOP primary in March, <a href="" target="_hplink">frequently making mention</a> of its foliage. <blockquote>Mitt Romney's last few Michigan stump speeches have included an unusual plank -- his appreciation for the apparently perfect height of the state's trees. "I love this state," he told an audience Tuesday. "The trees are the right height." On Friday afternoon, Romney reprised the comment, saying, "This feels good, being back in Michigan. You know, the trees are the right height."</blockquote> Of course, those comments were just the latest examples of Romney professing his love for the Wolverine State's trees. For more, read the <a href="" target="_hplink">rest of the story</a>.

  • Romney Likes Grits, Y'all

    At a March stump speech in Mississippi, Romney <a href="" target="_hplink">explained to primary voters</a> that he had been making attempts to solidify his Southern credentials. <blockquote>Campaigning in Mississippi on Wednesday, Mitt Romney attempted to win over local voters by invoking a beloved regional delicacy. The former Massachusetts governor said during a speech in Pascagoula, Miss., that he is turning into an "unofficial Southerner." He also joked, "I'm learning to say 'y'all' and I like grits. Strange things are happening to me."</blockquote>

  • Packzi Problems

    Romney tried to connect with a Michigan crowd by providing 35 dozen paczkis, Polish jelly doughnuts traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday, with flavors including strawberry, rose-hip and prune. But as <em>The Washington Post</em> reports, <a href="" target="_hplink">the gesture went awry</a>: <blockquote>The Comeback Kid walked out smiling, wearing a button-down shirt and jeans. And immediately messed something up. "By the way, how was the paczkis this morning? Yeah, yeah! That was very good," Romney said. His message: We are not so different, you and I. We have both just eaten the same food! But then Romney began talking about the powdered sugar on the paczki. There was no powdered sugar. The doughnuts were glazed and bare. "Reminded me of what's going on outside," Romney said, comparing the falling snow to a doughnut that people had not eaten. (Had he not really eaten one of the paczki, after all? Had Romney's campaign given the naked doughnuts to the crowd, while Romney was eating upgraded, sugar-dusted ones backstage?)</blockquote> Passing out baked goods is apparently something of a Romney hallmark, per this pool report of his <a href="" target="_hplink">foisting Panera on reporters</a> during a flight.

  • A Couple Of Cadillacs

    Mitt Romney tried to woo voters in Michigan when he off-handedly listed the American cars he and his wife owned, but may have instead ended up painting himself as out of touch. "I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles," Romney <a href="" target="_hplink">said during an economic policy address</a>. "I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs actually. I used to have a Dodge pickup truck, so I used to have all three covered." Ann Romney's SRXs, retail new for $35,485 to $54,525.

  • $10,000 Bet

    During a December debate, Mitt Romney tried to make a point by challenging rival Rick Perry to a bet over the content of his book, "No Apology." "You've raised that before, Rick, and you're simply wrong," Romney <a href="" target="_hplink">said</a>. "Rick, I'll tell you what: 10,000 bucks?" He may have been right, but it was the dollar amount that raised eyebrows. $10,000 is <a href="!/WestWingReport/status/145696946579972097" target="_hplink">three months' salary</a> for many Americans.

  • Pink Slips

    During the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney <a href="" target="_hplink">told an audience</a> at a campaign stop that he understood the fear of being fired, and that "there were a couple of times when I was worried I was going to get pink-slipped." Then-opponent Rick Perry mocked the statement, saying, "I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips - whether he'd have enough of them to hand out."

  • Oh, My Goodness!

    At a campaign stop this spring in Derry, New Hampshire, Mitt Romney pulled a gag that raised eyebrows. While posing for a photo with his arms around the waitresses at Mary Ann's Diner, Romney suddenly jumped forward, acting as if someone had pinched his hind quarters."Oh, my goodness gracious!" he exclaimed. The GOP presidential candidate later said he was "just teasing" and the gag is "kind of fun to do."

  • Chrome For The Hollandaise

    During a Granite State visit, Mitt Romney stopped off at Blake's Restaurant in Manchester. On the way out he met with the diner's owner <a href="" target="_hplink">and cracked this egg</a>: <blockquote>I saw a young man over there with eggs benedict. He had the eggs benedict with a hollandaise sauce and the eggs, there. And I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce and hubcaps. Because there's no plates like chrome for the hollandaise!</blockquote> <em>Get it!?</em> The owner laughed politely.

  • Corporations Are People

    At an August rally in Iowa, Mitt Romney attempted to school a heckler by telling him that "corporations are people." "Corporations are people, my friend... of course they are," Romney said, <a href="" target="_hplink">answering a question about entitlement reform</a>. "Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People's pockets. Human beings my friend."

  • Know Each Other?

    Trying to make small talk with patrons at a New Hampshire diner, Romney asked a married couple sitting in a booth together, "You know each other?" Other Romney conversation nonstarters, <a href="" target="_hplink">via The <em>Washington Post</em></a>: <blockquote>To a man wearing a "Joe Gauci Landscaping" T-shirt: "You do some landscaping work?" To two older women who just came from the gym: "Are your knees, hips doing okay?" ... Romney seemed to be auditing one man: "What's happened to your financials the last couple of years?"</blockquote>

  • 'I'm Also Unemployed'

    On the campaign trail in Florida, Romney and a small group of voters discussed unemployment and how to find a job in the struggling economy. The GOP presidential candidate worth more than $200 million chimed in, "I should tell my story. I'm also unemployed." The crowd laughed and asked if he was on LinkedIn. "I'm networking," Romney said, "I have my sight on a particular job."

  • Who Let The Dogs Out?

    In the now-infamous video from Romney's 2008 presidential bid, Mitt is seen meeting with voters at a Martin Luther King Day parade in Florida. After nervously approaching a crowd of youngsters and awkwardly weaving his arm into the huddle, he randomly <a href="" target="_hplink">blurted out</a>, "Who let the dogs out? Whoo Whoo!" For the full effect, watch the YouTube video above.

  • Anyone Over 100?

    At a town hall event at a senior center in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney asked the elderly audience if anyone was over 100 years old. The exchange, <a href="" target="_hplink">via the Daily Caller</a>: <blockquote>"Anybody here over 100 years old?" Romney asked. Crickets. "Not yet, but we're getting there, right? We're on our way," continued Romney. "We're hopefully going to get there soon." "Well, not so soon. We hope to get there safe and sound."</blockquote>

  • Airplane Scuffle With LMFAO Rapper

    In February 2010, Mitt Romney got into a <a href="" target="_hplink">scuffle on an airplane</a> traveling back from the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. A Romney spokesman initially told reporters that a passenger became "physically violent" after Romney asked him to move his seat upright for takeoff. Rapper "Sky Blu from the group LMFAO later identified himself as the passenger, saying Romney loudly told him several times to straighten his seat. When Romney reached forward and grabbed Blu's shoulder, the rapper knocked Romney's hand away. <a href="" target="_hplink">From MTV</a>: <blockquote>If Romney had asked nicely, Blu said he might have put his seat up, but since he was so rude ... Well, next thing you know, Blu said Romney reached out and put his hand on his shoulder and asked him again to put his seat up. </blockquote> <a href="" target="_hplink">Blu said</a>, "And I didn't take it any further than that. I just wanted the man not to touch me; that's it."

  • Only $100s

    At a campaign stop in Colorado, Romney mingled with patrons at a Mexican joint in Denver. From <a href="" target="_hplink"><em>The Washington Post</em></a>: <blockquote>At one table, a boy offered Romney a $1 bill that he had folded origami-style for good luck. The candidate happily accepted it, but then rifled through his wallet looking for money to give the boy in return. Romney had a $100 bill, but evidently did not want to give that away. An aide handed him a $1 bill, but Romney said that wasn't enough. Then, deep inside his leather billfold, Romney found a $5 bill. "We'll give you an Abraham Lincoln back," he said, handing it to the boy.</blockquote>

  • A 'Product'

    Mingling with voters at a <a href="" target="_hplink">campaign stop in Iowa</a>, Romney ordered a plate of fried chicken, corn and baked beans. While chatting with the market's owner, Romney, ever the business executive, curiously referred to the meal as a "product."

  • Politicians Get Recognized

    <a href="" target="_hplink">Courtesy of Politico</a>, this video shows Romney trying his hand at comedy during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. Romney talks to the crowd about how his four years in politics compare to his 25 years in the private sector, and how politicians get recognized in public. <blockquote>I was in the Newark airport, flying to Boston, and I was reading my newspaper and I heard someone shriek and I looked up and she was pointing at me. She had on a cowboy hat, cowboy boots; she was a Chinese exchange student. I knew she wasn't Texan because she had her jeans tucked into her boots. She pointed at me and she said, 'You're John Kerry!" And I said, "I sure am."</blockquote> For the full act, and the audience non-response, check out the video above.

  • Aloof Plane Flight

    Mitt Romney displayed some particularly aloof behavior when a passenger sitting next to him on a fight to Boston tried to strike up conversation, <em>The New York Times</em> reported Nov. 6. <a href="" target="_hplink">From the <em>Times</em></a>: <blockquote>According to Ms. McClanahan, about an hour into the flight -- which Mr. Romney mostly spent reading <em>USA Today</em> and using an iPad while wearing headphones -- she told him her idea for improving the American health care system: slashing overhead costs by switching to an electronic billing system. "He looked at me blankly and said, 'I understand,' then put his iPad headphones in and kept reading," she said.</blockquote> When another passenger asked Romney for a restarauant recommendation in Boston, he told her "I can't give you any .. You'll have to ask someone else," according to the article.

  • Perspired Heavily

    For 15 years Mitt Romney ran the private equity group Bain Capital. The successful financial company earned him millions. <a href="" target="_hplink">An <em>Los Angeles Times</em> article</a> about Romney's career at Bain painted a picture of the businessman under strain. "In tense meetings, he sometimes perspired so heavily it became an office joke. Or he nervously flapped his tie and said, "Oooohhh, what do we do now?" former colleagues told the paper.

  • The Decision

    When Romney entered the 2008 presidential race, he released a <a href="" target="_hplink">13-minute video </a>of his family aimed at humanizing him. The video, titled "The Decision," went viral, but not for the reasons Romney wanted. The short film is narrated mostly by his wife Anne Romney, who comes across as charming, personable and engaging, while the rest of the scene gives off a cloying whiff of privilege, cloister and artificiality. Mitt sits down with his family to discuss the pros and cons of running for president, although Anne had already admitted that the decision had basically been made earlier, undermining the conceit of the filmed family gathering. Mitt, apparently unable to behave informally even with his family, whips out a white legal pad to take notes on his family's discussion. "Let me ask: How do you minimize the downsides?" the business executive asks his sons and daughters. Tagg Romney, who suggests he runs, has one warning for his pop: "The country may think of you as a laughing stock."