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.
THE BAIN OF FACT-CHECKERS
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 Factcheck.org, 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?
NEW POLLING WOES FOR OBAMA
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.)
MOVING AROUND THE WEALTH
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.")
A SIGN OF GARY JOHNSON’S POTENCY?
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.
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?