Saturday, July 07, 2012

Race for the White House

It is summer in America and throughout most of the country, people are sweltering from the heat. Of course, that is not uncommon this time of year, and in the "dog days" of a Presidential election year, before convention season gets underway, we often hear talk about how a challenger to an incumbent is in the doldrums and in desperate need of a shake-up. That has been a big part of the last week, as the media, especially conservative personalities on Fox News, have been quite hard on Mitt Romney, believing he has had a bad couple of weeks and has lost the opportunity post  health-care ruling to take advantage of Barack Obama's weaknesses.

As mentioned, this carping is hardly unprecedented, (and it was in fact being done about the Obama campaign the month before) and not very surprising. There are of course many ups and downs in a campaign cycle, and while I said last week that Obama would get a small bump in the polls from the Court decision, the fundamentals of the race are very unchanged. It was extremely close before and is extremely close now. The polls show a virtual dead heat nationwide and Mitt Romney raised a staggering $100 million dollars in the month of June, while allowing Obama and the Democrats to vastly outspend him, so far.

I will say that the Romney campaign erred in a way to muddle their message politically for a few days the past week, by placing too much emphasis on ideological consistency regarding whether the mandate of Obamacare is a "tax" or a "penalty" and how it relates to what Romney did also in Massachusetts.

To summarize, Romney has always said that what he did in Massachusetts involved a penalty, not a tax, and that it was legal under the state's constitution. That was never challenged. He said from Day 1 though that the mandate in Obamacare was an unconstitutional federal penalty. The majority of the SCOTUS disagreed though and said it was a constitutional tax. Governor Romney and every conservative in the country disagreed with that ruling and agreed with the dissent which said in fact that Obamacare cannot be justified as a tax. When asked, Romney spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom reiterated as much, which seemed to indicate that Romney and Obama agreed it was not a tax. That is of course putting aside (that despite political claims to the contrary) Obama's lawyers did defend the mandate as a tax in court and have embraced the ruling, which says it is. Based on the political realities of the issue, Republicans have been quite enthusiastic (and I think for good reason) in running against what has been declared as a huge tax increase by Obama, but the statements coming from the Romney campaign (which later had to be clarified by saying that yes it was a tax) seemed to take the teeth out of the argument.

When I first heard of this brouhaha, I expected conservatives on the internet to be absolutely livid at Romney, but it was not as bad of a firestorm as I thought. What Fehrnstrom had said made perfect sense to me and I think would be clear to most who follow the news and debates of the day closely, but it did lead to some political confusion, because in a campaign it is far better to be on offense and to stick by a narrative. Thus, whether we agree or not, Obamacare is officially, technically, legally a tax and needs to be opposed in that way.

This story caused many on Fox News and elsewhere who are considered on the right to call for Fehrnstrom to be fired and for Romney to shore up his team with better professionals. Again, this is something that happens every summer for any candidate running against an incumbent President. I do not expect that tight-knit Romney inner circle to be broken up, but there was news this week that Kevin Madden, a more visible Romney aide in 2008, will be taking on a more public role.

There was also the predictable grumbling this week about the fact that Romney was away from the public eye for much of the Independence Day week, (in which there is more of a news lull) by vacationing with his family at their home in the key battleground state of New Hampshire. There were visuals of the Romneys eating ice cream and riding around on wave runners and other rich people stuff, which can be deemed as "bad optics." I would say that Governor Romney has been working very hard for over a year now campaigning and will be doing so for the next 122 days. Thus, I really think he was entitled to spend some  downtime time with his wife, kids, and grandkids. While it may have looked like a "vacation", there have been reports that he had spent part of the time beginning to engage in debate prep for what is upcoming this fall and huddling with campaign staffers, such as Beth Myers, the person in charge of vetting potential running-mates. No news leaked, but it is very possible that behind closed doors this past week, Romney met face to face in New Hampshire with some of those hopefuls.

For his part, Obama spent the latter part of the week on a (Canadian made) bus tour with stops in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania in which he defended his record, and went hard after Romney's business background. One of the more recent narratives (and one in which many conservatives are expressing frustration about) is that Romney is some sort of "Outsourcer in Chief" because some of the businesses which succeeded under the investments of Bain Capital also had operations overseas. It's a pretty flimsy charge, but some believe it is doing damage to Romney from the barrage of negative ads that are being run by Obama in key states and they want the GOP to a better job in fighting back. I agree that should happen, but I also think that it is still relatively early enough in the general election campaign, that attacks like that are going to burn out on their own by the time persuadable voters truly make up their minds for the final time.

While he was in New Hampshire yesterday, Governor Romney did make a public appearance to comment on the June jobs report which once again shows extremely anemic growth in the economy. I would expect both candidates to be more visible this week and in the weeks to come, and for the economy, and Obama's stewardship over it, to re-emerge as the main issue of the campaign.