Here is a piece the Telegraph asked to do on Mitt Romney’s latest balls-up, his stupid comments on ‘victim’ Americans, and anti-peace Palestinians. We could be reaching the point of no return for Mr R.
S and M. Two vital ingredients of any political campaign. No, this is not yet another examination of the Fifty Shades phenomenon. S stands for Strategy. M stands for Morale. Both are essential to the success of a campaign, and the lack of a clear S is now inevitably impacting upon M within the Mitt Romney campaign, especially as the candidate himself has an unfortunate habit of inflicting damage upon his own cause.
G for Gaffe. Gaffe is one of those words barely used outside the media discourse about politics, but which is coming to define the Romney campaign, much as ‘flip-flop’ came to define John Kerry, the Democrat nominee who lost to George W Bush in 2004, and the tactically brilliant but strategically disastrous appointment of Sarah Palin as running mate came to define and dominate John McCain’s doomed attempt to defeat Barack Obama in 2008.
Mr Romney’s latest G for Gaffe shows his inability to obey another golden rule of campaigning – every word is on the record, like it or not. So when he told a ‘behind closed doors’ fundraising event that ‘there are 47 per cent who are with him [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it’, he clearly thought that there was no danger of his words being broadcast beyond the circle of friendship from which he was raising cash. When he said ‘my job is not to worry about these people … I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,’ he was either immune to the political sensitivity of such a statement, or stupid, or naïve, or all of the above. And when he added ‘these are people who pay no income tax,’ he presumably believed his audience was so like-minded, that they would not object to the would-be President saying such a blatant untruth in their presence and one which, if leaked, would provide ample extra ammunition for the Obama campaign.
The ammo is now out, courtesy of that staple of modern campaigns, ‘the secret video,’ this time via the wonderfully named Mother Jones magazine website. The Obama campaign, rather more message-disciplined than Romney’s, was quick to capitalize. ‘It is hard to serve as president for all Americans when you’ve disdainfully written off half the nation,’ said campaign manager Jim Messina. Bang on message for a campaign designed to show Obama as leading America through hard times, and Romney as an out-of-touch elitist who got rich by putting people out of work and does not understand the struggles people are facing. Indeed, elsewhere in the secret video is the somewhat startling observation from Mr Romney that his opponents might have some success in portraying him as ‘an evil bad guy.’
The Messina quote is similar in style and format to one from the President himself, following Mr Romney’s visit to London, where he sought to capitalize on transient security problems at London 2012 by reminding the world of his own success organizing the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City a decade ago. ‘You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally,’ said Obama, his comment all the more effective for the smile on his face as he delivered it.
Mr Romney’s London gaffe, exploited like everything else to do with the Olympics by London Mayor Boris Johnson, set the tone for further problems in Israel and Poland, and a visit designed to emphasise his foreign policy expertise backfired, a backfiring resurrected when he made a silly attack upon President Obama in the wake of the latest flare-up in the Middle East, and again yesterday when Mother Jones put out a second installment of the now not so secret video, focusing on Mr Romney’s defeatist and one-sidedly pro Israel view of the Middle East, with views of Palestinians similar to those he holds for 47 per cent of Americans.
Then there was the Convention, planned as the week that America would get to know Romney, but remembered by most for Hurricane Isaac forcing a rescheduling of the programme, and a cringemaking conversation between actor-director Clint Eastwood and a chair. I tweeted at the time that I would love to have been in the room when Mr Romney asked his aides: ‘Whose idea was that then?’ Likewise, as an Obama sympathizer, I would love to have been in the room when Mr Romney’s team informed him that Mother Jones had got hold of his latest Gaffespeak. I wouldn’t mind laying a bet that there would have been much time and energy-wasting speculation about who filmed it, how Mother Jones got it, the mechanics of the disaster; whereas what he needs is someone to remind him that he is one of two contestants in the toughest, longest, most brutal election known to politics, and that means taking greater care to engage his political mind before his campaigning mouth opens; because one thing leads to another, and then another, and then another, and now because the G for Gaffe narrative is set, a small gaffe will be presented as a big one, and a big one has the capacity to be seismic, and undo the basic strategy at every turn.
Here we come to Mr Romney’s fundamental problem. The S word. His strategy is not clear. He has allowed a confusion to develop around what might be defined as his political DNA; and the cause of that is the process that led to his nomination, and the state of the Party that nominally he leads.
As Governor of Massachusetts, both in tone and some of the policy positions he adopted, he leaned towards the more benign, even liberal, end of the Republican scale. But with the Tea Party movement dominant in the wake of Senator McCain’s defeat, and Fox News acting as a cheerleader for any crazy right wing ideas put forward, and a denunciator of anything that might appeal to the centre ground, Mr Romney trimmed his political sails to tack to the right. It helped to get him elected by the Party, but as the rest of the Mother Jones video shows, it has led to him struggling to gain those ‘disappointed with Obama’ voters he needs to win over to knock out the President in swing states.
Then we come to the L word. Luck. Winners have it. Losers don’t, and the timing of this latest gaffe suggests Mr Romney is running out of it. For the video, filmed in May, emerged yesterday, within hours of the Romney team admitting their current strategy was failing and was therefore in need of revision. There is nothing wrong with that. Another golden rule – if the campaign isn’t working, adapt. But adaptation must have strategy at its heart, and there was no greater clarity to the ‘new’ strategy laid out by his advisers than there had been to the old one. All they said was that the focus so far had been too negative against President Obama – the failure of which Mr Romney admitted in the remarks filmed several months ago – and that they would now use more positive TV spots, and more speeches rooted in policy.
The question for Mr Romney is whether people will listen. Even before a candidate gets through the door of the undecided, he has to pass a basic competence test. Every time the Gaffeometer chalks up another one, the credibility of the candidate falls further. Every time the credibility falls, morale in the camp falls with it, giving heart to your opponents, agony to your team.
According to some of the US media, the blame game has already begun among his advisers and supporters. With 50 days to go, that is a bad sign for Mr Romney. President Obama is ahead in most of the swing states Romney needs to take. The polls would be narrow enough to close – with a strong candidate, a clear strategy, a united team, and lots of money. Romney scores well on the last of these, but without the first three, it risks being money down the drain. Having seen the impact of his comments to them, I suspect that may be how the diners who gathered for the ‘secret’ dinner in Boca Raton, Florida, now see it.
@ Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair’s spokesman and strategist for the former prime minister’s three election wins as Labour leader. His latest volume of diaries, Burden of Power, was published earlier this year.