A lot has already been said about the flaws in Mitt Romney’s analysis from that hidden video. (On NRO: Here’s me last night. Here’s Patrick Brennan. Ramesh, Foster, Reihan, O’Sullivan. Oh and here’s a vexed Bill Kristol over at the shop across the street.)
But what bothers me more about Romney’s statement isn’t the faulty analysis — though it is faulty — but the reliance on “analysis” like this at all. What I mean is, Romney comes across as a guy who thinks elections are simply a numbers game (and for a numbers guy, it’s pretty infuriating he botched the numbers).
According to his analysis, the folks in Obama’s camp are just write-offs, except for a few silly, “emotional” people in the middle who he hopes to sway with appeals that are less than wholly rational. I understand that Romney is speaking in shorthand, and for all we know he was just keying off premises laid out by the questioner. But even so, Romney’s remarks reinforce the overriding problem with his campaign: It is bloodlessly non-ideological. And that is by design. Stewart Stevens, Romney’s top strategist has made it abundantly clear he doesn’t much care about ideas or philosophy. That showed in his convention strategy and in Romney’s speech, which he apparently wrote. Responding to complaints about his stewardship, Stevens told Politico: “Politics is like sports. A lot of people have ideas, and there’s no right or wrong. You just have to chart a course, and stay on that course.” Not only is that not true of politics, as best I can tell it’s not even true of sports either.
Even the campaign’s ostensibly ideological ads and soundbites seem offered not as statements of conviction but as carefully — and sometimes not so carefully — crafted slogans aimed at telling the silly swing-voters what they most want to hear. I’m not naive; focus groups and poll data are part of politics, like it or not. But when conviction politicians use such tools it’s often as a way to make what they believe more salable. With the Romney campaign, all too often it seems like they’ve got it reversed. They’re trying to sell the voters on the idea that Romney believes something.
In fairness to Romney, I do think he believes things. The problem is he doesn’t have an organic understanding for politics or conservatism — I think I was the first to say a while back, he speaks conservatism as a second language. So when he tries to express his ideas he either sounds too detached or as if he’s parroting the idiom of a language he doesn’t fully understand.
That’s the problem with what he says in that video. It’s not that everything he says is wrong, it’s just that it’s wrong enough to both hurt him and make it hard to defend what he’s saying. Ironically, I think if he were less articulate (like George W. Bush) or even spoke with a foreign accent, this would be more clear. But it is precisely because he is such a precise speaker that he gets himself in so much trouble.
For instance, some on the left are trying to make it sound like Romney says he won’t concern himself with the “47 percent” if he’s president. That’s not what he’s saying in the video. What he’s saying in the video is that as a strategic matter he can’t concern himself with the people locked into voting against him. I’m skeptical about that as a strategy (people want to hear a president speaking to everyone, even the people opposed to him. That’s why his visit to the NAACP was such a good outing for his campaign). And even if the strategy is right, the candidate should never say anything of the sort. But what’s really so frustrating is that in lieu of a philosophical framework separate and apart from focus-grouped bromides, people easily confuse his strategic meditations as statements of vision.
No, I don’t think this is the end of the Romney campaign or that he’s doomed or any of the wishful thinking being passed off as sober analysis in the mainstream press. Many liberals hear Romney in the video and in their sympathetic condescension think the 47 percent will hear themselves being called “moochers.” That’s not how people hear these things for the most part. But the clock is ticking. There are only so many days left until the election, and too often this campaign finds itself on defense or explaining what it “really” means. There’s just not a lot more time for that sort of thing. “Stay on course” doesn’t strike me as a winning strategy.