Politics & Policy

Making the Wrong Challenge

Romney punished himself by introducing crime at the debate.

Last weekend, fresh upon news that a killer freed without bail, by a judge appointed by ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, had allegedly killed two people in Graham, Washington, crime emerged as a new issue in the campaign for the 2008 Republican nomination.

This was not a necessary development. True, according to October figures from Gallup, 57 percent of Americans view crime as an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem. That might suggest that it’s a relevant issue for presidential candidates to be talking about. But, the fact of the matter is, a variety of recent polling shows that more voters are worried about the environment — itself something of a fringe issue compared to subjects like Iraq, terrorism, and the economy — than crime. That suggests that there is little to gain from homing in on it. But more importantly, for Romney, there was much to lose.

Following ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani bashing Romney on crime, pursuant to the killer-freeing news emerging last weekend, the Romney camp chose to have their candidate engage on the topic. Certainly, it made sense in terms of defending Romney’s record, but on a variety of other levels, it was a questionable move. Not only did Romney coming back on the subject of crime by blasting Giuliani as “making up facts” lead to some in the media scrutinizing said facts, and finding that under Romney, murders, manslaughters, and robberies increased in Massachusetts. It also kept the story playing out for far longer than it needed to, which was unhelpful, in and of itself.

But that’s not all. Additionally, it kept Romney from garnering full attention as he blasted away on issues like immigration, where Giuliani appears vulnerable. Moreover, it forced him to set foot on some of Giuliani’s favorite terrain. Arguing with the real-life law-and-order tough guy might seem like a smart move, but when it’s over a subject like crime — on which Giuliani’s record is well-known and unquestioned, and Romney’s appears a little more lackluster — that’s dubious. Debating crime with Giuliani has one effect, and one effect only: bolstering his position by underlining his leadership and his (excellent) results, while risking making the guy branded as the competent executive look like only a marginal success — and one from “Laxachusetts,” no less.

That’s one of the lessons Romney should have taken out of Wednesday’s debate, where he did more than merely engage with Giuliani on the crime issue. He actually gave the former Mayor the ultimate gift, on a proverbial silver platter, by using a question about black-on-black crime to talk about violent crime reductions under his tenure. Notable though those may have been, the point that everyone watching took away was that Giuliani was the functional equivalent of Eliot Ness to Romney’s desk-manning suburban cop. And, that “the governor has a mixed record in fighting crime,” to use Giuliani’s own words.

Of course, it could have been worse– and should Romney choose to continue talking crime either with, or in the presence of, the man who put John Gotti in jail, things could still head south. For as much as Romney is regarded as a strong and experienced leader, at least according to November Gallup polling, he earns less high marks for leadership than does the former Mayor. Whereas 81 percent of Republicans rate Giuliani well on leadership, just 52 percent do the same vis a vis Romney. Moreover, 63 percent say that Giuliani’s “leadership style” makes them more likely to vote for him. So, the last thing in the world that Romney should be doing is talking about any issue on which Giuliani’s record is almost universally viewed as exceptional. Crime being foremost among such topics, Romney would be well-advised to drop it like a hot potato.

  – Liz Mair is a political columnist, commentator, and consultant from Arlington, Va. She writes daily at www.lizmair.com.

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