Romney’s Rollout: A Refocused Message and Open Season on “Multiple-Choice Mitt”

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Here’s the thing about Mitt Romney’s big news: It wasn’t really news to anyone. The Republican presidential candidate-in-waiting never really stopped running after 2008 and Monday’s announcement that he’s forming an exploratory committee to examine running for President hardly turned heads. He’s spent the last few years constructing a top-flight political organization, a robust network and a recognizable public persona, all without getting into the weeds of cable news gigs or Facebook feuds. But that doesn’t mean things haven’t changed.

Through months of op-eds, speeches and book tour stops, Romney’s relentless message was that America is the greatest and President Obama either won’t admit it (he does), or stands in the way of America becoming greatester. (Romney’s newfangled “Believe in America” slogan, featured in Monday’s announcement and splashed across his website, is a more positive version of that sentiment, but still implicitly suggests, “Someone doesn’t believe in America.”)

And for much of last year, that message was focused in the realm of foreign policy. One of Romney’s highest-profile moves of 2010 was to publicly oppose Senate ratification of the President’s Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. Even the title of his book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness,” alludes (twice!) to his charge that Obama has embarked on a whirlwind ring-kissing forgiveness tour of global proportions. Part of Romney’s calculation seemed to have been that, unlike many observers, he wasn’t so sure the U.S. economy would make for ample political fodder come reelection season. Just last September, he said:

I think President Obama will be difficult to beat in 2012, because I think an incumbent has extraordinary advantages. He will pull out all the stops, although he’s pulled out so many stops at this point that there might not be a whole lot more to pull out in terms of federal reserve, interest rates and stimulus and so forth.

But he will do everything he can to get the economy going back again, and most likely — at least in my view — the economy will be coming back.

It’s beginning to look like he wasn’t so far off. Recent projections are showing an improved, though still far from normal, employment situation in 2012. TheĀ  obsessed-over jobless rate may even fall below the symbolic 8% milestone by election day. But Romney, perhaps having watched a conservative tide in the ’10 midterms soak the Dems thoroughly with fiscal and economic messages, has since pivoted to an all-jobs barrage. And that’s exactly what’s at the heart of Romney’s Monday announcement:

I’ve become convinced that America has been put on a dangerous course by Washington politicians and it’s become even worse during the last two years. But I’m also convinced, with able leadership, America’s best days are still ahead…. It’s time we put America back on a course of greatness with a growing economy, good jobs and fiscal discipline in Washington.

America is still great, he says, but things are going wrong. He points to foreclosures in a Las Vegas neighborhood, still hard hit by the housing crisis. He gives the total number of jobless Americans, a shocking figure despite an easing unemployment rate. He’s setting himself up to make a powerful caseĀ  — a simple question that Obama, who must largely rely on counterfactuals at this point, may have trouble answering without ifs and buts: Are Americans better off than they were in 2008? The economy’s not exactly new territory for Romney, but with the exception of a brief nod to “fiscal discipline,” it’s the only issue even mentioned in his announcement video to supporters.

As for the timing, Romney’s rollout, staid in comparison to Tim Pawlenty’s Michael Bay shorts, kicks off his herculean task of raising money to compete in what looks to be a drawn out primary season and a general election against a billion-dollar incumbent. It also declares open season on all manner of sniping at Romney, who starts the primary as a, if not the, frontrunner.

Matt Ortega, a new media consultant at a D.C. communications firm, launched an attack website against Romney on Tuesday. Dubbed, the site takes its name from the late Ted Kennedy’s lashing indictment of Romney for the position he staked out on abortion in their 1994 Senate race: “Romney isn’t pro-choice, he’s not anti-choice, he’s multiple choice.” Ortega, a Democrat who says he is acting independently of his employer or any party organ, built the site to feature faux scantron multiple choice questions highlighting various Romney’s hedges, inconsistencies and adjustments over the years. There’s ample material. “It just kind of writes itself,” Ortega says.

Romney’s announcement may provide foes with yet more fodder. It came on the eve of the five-year anniversary of Massachusetts’ health reform law, passed when he was governor, that served as the intellectual basis for Obama’s national reforms. Even the words “Believe in America” highlight some unfortunate similarities between Romney and another wealthy Bay Stater with questionable hunting bona fides and a reputation for flip-floppery: Ben Smith notes that “Believe in America” was once a John Kerry slogan. But it’s hard to fault Romney for that one. There are a finite number of vague, optimistic aphorisms that can fit on a bumper sticker. Just ask Barack Obama.