The Fault, Dear Romney, Is Not in the Staff

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The tepid June jobs report could relegate the calls for a shake-up in Team Romney to the dumpster of stupid campaign controversies, along with the candidate’s ruminations on lemonade, that 13-year-old conservative who isn’t conservative anymore and the rest of last week’s flotsam and jetsam. But now that Rupert Murdoch, Jack Welch and the Wall Street Journal editorial page have all complained that Romney needs more seasoned advisers, the ritual-sacrifice speculation will probably keep percolating throughout the fall.  Which is just perverse. I think Team Romney is doing a terrific job selling an extremely flawed product.

Elections are usually decided by the facts on the ground, not by campaign strategists, and while tactics can help at the margins, top-line numbers tend to overwhelm all rational analysis. For example, John McCain lost, so the media concluded in retrospect that everything he did was dumb, but I actually think most of the risks he took made sense under the difficult circumstances. Now Romney is a few points behind a vulnerable incumbent in the polls, so it’s become fashionable to blame his staff for failing to “craft a clear message,” for bobbing and weaving about Romney’s plans and principles while trying to redirect attention to President Obama.

Well, here’s a clear message: There is no clear message that can get Mitt Romney to the White House, except for “Obama isn’t working,” which happens to be the Romney campaign’s clear message. It would be suicidal for Eric Fehrnstrom and his team to try to articulate Romney’s plans, because the details of the Republican policy agenda of tax cuts for the rich and spending cuts for everyone else is wildly unpopular. And it would be impossible for Team Romney to articulate the candidate’s principles, for reasons that should be obvious by now. If the Obamacare obfuscations out of Boston about taxes and penalties sound like word salad, that’s because word salad is the only path to victory for the father of Obamacare.

With unemployment still hovering above 8%, the President would be in deep trouble against a generic Republican like Tim Pawlenty or John Thune and would probably be unelectable against a Republican with genuine appeal to independents, like Jon Huntsman Jr. or, for that matter, John McCain circa 2008. It’s amazing that a Republican with Swiss bank accounts, a history of offshoring and a ludicrously chameleonic political persona made it out of the GOP primary. But doesn’t that suggest that maybe those “idiots” in Boston are smarter than Murdoch thinks?

Romney is in a tricky position. He can’t completely renounce all the right-wing red meat he pushed during the primary; conservatives would freak out if he flip-flopped again on repealing Obamacare or vetoing the Dream Act or advocating gay rights or Medicare cuts. But he wants independent voters to hold out hope that he’s really a reasonable guy who was just sucking up to the Tea Party for electoral purposes and would govern from the middle once he got to the White House. The Romney campaign has taken a lot of flak for its incoherent response to Obama’s support for gay marriage and for undocumented workers who came to America as kids, but there wasn’t a coherent response that would have won him any votes. His current mix of mumbo jumbo plus Obama bashing plus trying to change the subject back to the economy makes a lot of sense. Every day that the focus is on Obama and the economy is a good day for Romney.

This is not to say that Fehrnstrom and his team are political geniuses; I vaguely remember him from when we were both reporters in Boston, and nothing about his byline stood out as particularly original. Obviously, he shouldn’t have said that Etch A Sketch thing, since he’s representing an Etch A Sketch candidate. His real problem is that the candidate can’t be fired. For partisans who genuinely want Romney to win — and it’s not entirely clear if Murdoch is one of them, despite his dutiful tweet about how he wants Romney to “save us from socialism, etc.” — it’s easier to complain about the staff.

But hey, Mr. Murdoch, maybe you should worry a bit more about your own staff — or what’s left of it after the phone-hacking indictments.