(CNN) — By any measure, the Mitt Romney for president campaign has had a painfully bad week. What went wrong?
The bad news began Wednesday. That day, Romney addressed the. The speech was poorly received, so much so that Romney, in an interview that afternoon on Fox Business, told host Neil Cavuto that he had “expected” boos. Some interpreted that comment as proof that Romney had actually wanted to be booed by the NAACP in order to rev up elements of the conservative base.
The Romney campaign next reacted by whispering to the Drudge Report (which acts as a kind of message board for Romney) that it was seriously considering Condoleezza Rice as a running mate. That story excited the press for half a day, until reporters remembered two hard realities: Party conservatives won’t accept a pro-choice running mate, and Rice has made repeated public statements of lack of interest in the VP job.
The NAACP story probably moved few votes. But it’s interesting in its own right — and as a warning of the bigger trouble that hit the campaign on Thursday.
The NAACP incident shows a hyperactive campaign war room, overcorrecting one way (“the boos are no big deal; everything’s going according to plan!”) and then overcorrecting the other way (“we weren’t trying to generate TV images of racial confrontation; why, look, here’s Condi Rice!”), spinning and counterspinning without any forethought for how this hour’s aggressive statement would sound when the next hour’s realities arrived.
And it was that “win the hour” mentality that got the Romney campaign into much more serious trouble when the Obama campaign launched a big push on Romney’s business record the next day.
Thursday morning, the Obama campaign released a tough ad attacking the record of downsizing and outsourcing at Romney’s old firm, Bain Capital.
The Romney campaign reacted with outrage. That same day, it announced a multimillion-dollar purchase of airtime for an ad that bluntly accused President Obama of lying.
In support of the ad, Romney’s team argued that he had left Bain Capital in February 1999; the incidents alluded to by the Obama campaign all occurred after that date and had nothing to do with Romney.
Wham. The first attack on Romney had been a jab, dropping Romney’s guard against the haymaker: On Friday, the Obama team counter-charged that it was Romney who was lying in his ads or who had committed a felony, lying on 140 official forms that he signed as CEO and sole shareholder of Bain between 1999 and 2002.
Romney now chased the Obama story, granting five TV interviews to reiterate his version of events. The more he talked, the more deeply into trouble he sank. By Sunday, even Romney supporters were urging the thing he wants least: release of more income tax returns.
And here again, what got Romney into the trouble was his war room. It was the too-fierce response to Attack 1 — the adamant insistence that Romney had nothing, nothing to do with anything that happened at Bain after February 1999 — that set up Romney for Attack 2: Did he lie on SEC forms? And now he will struggle through the rest of the election trying to reconcile his answers. Yes, it is technically true that Romney ended his operational role at Bain before he ended his titular role. It was also technically true (as Josh Marshall points out) that John Kerry did vote for the $87 billion before he voted against it.
Romney’s core problem is this: He heads a party that must win two-thirds of the white working-class vote in presidential elections to compensate for its weakness in almost every demographic category. The white working class is the most pessimistic and alienated group in the electorate, and it especially fears and dislikes the kind of financial methods that gained Romney his fortune.
Romney has a strong potential defense: Bain was in the business of making companies more efficient and profitable. Downsizing and outsourcing were necessary — and often indispensable — means to that end. In a growing economy, the workers who lost their jobs should find new jobs elsewhere, and it’s precisely the relentless search for profitability that causes economies to grow in the first place.
That’s an argument that, to borrow an old joke of Henry Kissinger’s, is not only convincing but has the additional merit of being true. However, it’s not an argument that appeals much to the voters Romney most intensely needs to win. Hence his unleashing of the war room — but in the end, there’s only so much a war room can do. And this time, by trying to do too much, the Romney war room may have blasted its own side with lethal friendly fire.
By David Frum