The Romney Brand: A Position A Day Keeps His Base In Play…Or Does It?

by George Kennedy on September 24, 2012


The Romney Brand  A Position A Day Keeps His Base In Play..Was an inconsistent message the center piece of Mitt Romney’s strategy to capture the GOP nomination in 2012 and then move on to the White House?  If so, he failed to explain to swing voters, undecideds, and those willing to vote against the President, how that makes him the better choice to repair the economy and end the crippling gridlock in Washington.

Mitt Romney consistently fails to understand that the measure of a presidential candidate is the degree to which he convinces voters of his qualifications.  Likeability also helps.

The word on Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive, is that he is an able businessman, a numbers-guy, the consummate pragmatist.  Some have argued his rapacious business practices destroyed more jobs than he claims to have created.  Setting that aside, let’s give him his “props” as an American success story.

As the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, however, Mitt Romney may rank as one of the most enigmatic GOP candidates in living memory.  He is no neophyte in presidential politics.  Romney has been running since 2004.  He knows the terrain, or at least he should.  An essential feature of the political landscape every candidate has to navigate is, if you have a past (and Mitt has a past), it becomes your present – and future – reality during your candidacy.  To paraphrase an old adage, “You can run, but you can’t hide – at least not in the digitized world of the 21st century.

However, Romney has been running from his past as the former chief executive of Massachusetts.  Moreover, it has become a source of amusement for many Romney watchers to watch him ignore his record as governor and contort his record at Bain Capital until the former is invisible and the latter resembles a pretzel.

During the Republican primaries, Romney, lacking a serious depth of thought, took every side of an issue to remain a viable candidate.  He then savagely attacked his rivals when they drew “political blood” by pointing out his inconsistencies on important issues.  Texas Governor Rick Perry coined the phrase “vulture capitalism” to describe the net effect of Romney’s business practices when Mitt could not explain how many jobs he claimed to have created.

Mitt Romney is the Republican presidential candidate and, remaining consistent, he regularly disavows positions he took during the recent Republican primaries.  In the matchup against President Obama, Romney now takes a position only to have his campaign disavow it within the hour.

James Carville kept his team motivated and focussed by reminding them “It’s the economy, stupid!”  Watching the Romney team, their campaign theme might well have been, “A position a day keeps our base in play.”

In an era of ubiquitous social media, when a cell phone can become a candidate’s worst nightmare, there are video clips of Romney opposing the Obama Administration’s policy stance toward Libya.  Romney then agreed with the outcome only to later suggest our actions were too aggressive.  That is just one of the more egregious examples of a typical Romney flip-flop.

Romney postulated that the healthcare plan he proudly instituted in Massachusetts as governor could “serve as a model for the nation.”  A model!  When President Obama adopted it, Romney declared it government overreach and, if elected, would “get rid of it on his first day in office.”

Mitt Romney’s campaign rhetoric is frequently infused with impersonal loft without lucidity:  “I will never apologize for America!”  What does that mean?  He never provides examples of moments when he claims the President has apologized for America.  Romney says, “I will restore respect for American leadership in the world!”  He never explains what he would do differently than the President.

His campaign speeches and comments on the stump, for example, eschew explanatory detail on his plans to create 12 million jobs, or to lower the national debt, or reform the tax code.  Candidate Romney’s delivery is flat and he appears almost animatronic.  Did he believe his base would not require more from him as their candidate other than he was not the other guy?  Where were swing voters and independents supposed to go in this election?

Romney’s contradictions, distortions, and willful misrepresentations of material facts amount to volumes of column inches and amusing commentary by pundits and journalists covering and observing his campaign.  Should Romney lose in November, his may be the ignominious political death of a thousand unkind cuts – deservedly so.  Imagine the interminable rhetorical question:  “When did Romney lose the election?”  Next obvious question , and response, will focus on a specific event or misstatement that signaled his candidacy was doomed.  Numerous best sellers will dissect the election the GOP should have won with unemployment above 8 percent, a growing national debt, and a still faltering economy.

A valid question may be, “Was Romney more determined to secure the GOP nomination in 2012 than he was to capture the White House?  Some of us asked that question of John Kerry in 2004.  The question is germane given the enigmatic campaign he has run thus far.  It is plausible to build a campaign around who you are not, or what is wrong with America, as Romney does.   No worthy political strategist would recommend such a strategy without the content to support their candidate as the better alternative.  Someone will ultimately ask, “Where’s the beef?”  Romney managed to get his base excited, he gave them the roll, and then promised to provide the beef once in the White House.

Millions of voters were – and some remain – frustrated and disappointed with President Obama.  The President acknowledges that as fact.  But, for Romney to assume their level of disappointment was so profound they would abandon the President wholesale for a hollow vessel whose depth does not approach that of a bumper sticker, was folly.

Romney’s base may have begun to conclude he lacks the conviction to make the case for his candidacy, and that he does not run an effective campaign.  A vociferous chorus of credible conservative critics such as Peggy Noonan, David Brooks, Bill Kristol, and Joe Scarborough see him as a defective product who has failed to capture the momentum from a weakened president.  Moreover, it has been suggested his quest is more about resume building; to accomplish what his successful father could not.

At a minimum, it is a requirement to appear presidential, more so if a crisis develops during the campaign and he, as a candidate, decides to inject himself.  Voters may differ on a definition of “presidential” but they know presidential behavior when they see it.

During a major crisis, each of us is reassured by a Commander-in-chief (or prospective) who exhibits a mature sobriety and determination.  It is what we expect.  It is what the rest of the world expects of us.

The key problem for Romney today is twofold:  He still lacks a coherent message, and, he is perceived to lack character.  On this latter point, Romney appears to have one message for his base.  His tone and rhetoric changes when he wants to appear moderate.  The questions still remain, Who is Mitt Romney?  And, What does he stand for?

For a presidential candidate who never commanded intense loyalty from his base – or the Republican Party writ large – Romney’s communication’s strategy of standing for nothing and everything could not have been more counter-productive.  His more experienced advisors had to know his chameleonic performance would run into headwinds during the general campaign when matched against the adroit Obama team.  As we move into the final weeks of the campaign, Romney must know something the rest of us do not.  Who knows, he may yet write a new chapter in the campaign strategist’s playbook that could become the best seller of 2013.

Just a few weeks to go; stay tuned.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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