In the Arena


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Evan Vucci / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pauses during a speech to the NAACP annual convention in Houston, Texas, July 11, 2012.

Back in June of 1988, Lee Atwater took me aside and showed me some stuff that Bush the Elder’s campaign had developed against Michael Dukakis, who was then enjoying a 17-point advantage in the polls. The “stuff” seemed laughable. Dukakis hadn’t signed an order requiring schoolchildren in Massachusetts to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He had once said that he was a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” The most damaging bit was that he’d run a weekend parole program for prisoners, which had been abused by several inmates. (If I remember correctly, Atwater didn’t lay out the sordid details of the Willie Horton case.) In any event, I thought these “issues” were fairly pathetic–and they were. But…

They proved to be devastating. Part of it was the Dukakis campaign’s ineptitude when it came to responding–a consequence that led directly to the establishment of Bill Clinton‘s famed “War Room” in 1992. But more important, this coordinated campaign  “defined” Dukakis as an out-of-touch, soft-on-crime Massachusetts liberal, a prisoner of the “Harvard boutique” etc etc etc. He spent the entire summer on the defensive. I still think the pledge of allegiance stuff was pretty silly–Dukakis had refused to require children to say the pledge in order to honor the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses–but it was a nail in a brilliantly constructed coffin.

(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)

Fast forward to now. Mitt Romney is experiencing a Dukakis-like summer playing defense. The Obama campaign has also constructed a brilliant coffin, custom-made for a turnaround artist. There are many nails in this coffin, some more important than others. The nails are being hammered in a natural progression. There is a logic to this. The current controversy over whether Romney was or was not running Bain capital during the years 1999-2002 is a relatively minor nail–the functional equivalent of the Pledge of Allegiance. Bain was involved in the global economy during those years. This meant outsourcing jobs to places like Mexico and China, which meant the creative destruction of obsolete jobs here at home. Whether Romney was directing them or not, these activities were perfectly legal. That doesn’t matter, though:  there is confusion about why he was still listed as the boss if he wasn’t really the boss, which seems shifty. And there’s the question of why he was making tons of money if he wasn’t the boss, which is what this is really all about.

Indeed, that’s the Willie Horton argument building against Romney. Democrats were appalled by the Horton ads (the most devastating was produced by an “independent” committee, “unrelated”  to the Bush campaign). They were, allegedly, racist. Horton was black. But they cut to the heart of a significant problem the Democratic Party had at the time: it was sort of soft on crime, in the midst of the post-Vietnam left’s “they’re depraved because they’re deprived” delusion. And Mitt Romney’s Willie Horton? His tax returns. He has only released one–for 2010, with estimates for 2011. Standard operating procedure for 21st century presidential candidates is: you release everything, more or less. And Romney will be plagued by this issue until he does.

And when he does we’re likely to find that he made a lot of money and paid very little taxes. It’s possible that the 14% was his high water mark. It’s possible that there were years when he paid much less. And this will make the Obama campaign’s larger point: the Republicans are defending an economy that has been distorted by financial games-playing over the past 30 years, in which the rich make deals, not products, and pay very little taxes on their curiously-gotten gains. The Republicans will say this is an argument against capitalism. It isn’t. It’s an argument against plutocracy. It isn’t a nuanced argument. (Bain Capital made an awful lot of productive investments, saved a lot of jobs by making companies more efficient. It was a class act in an industry marked by a critical mass of bottom feeders and low-lifes.) But the argument may well prove to be an effective one–especially if Romney continues to behave as Dukakis did, refusing to respond to the larger issues raised by the very well-constructed demolition job that has been visited upon him.

I’ll have more on this in my print column next week.