WASHINGTON - Whatever happened to, “He’s a nice guy, he just isn’t up to the job”?
That was Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s initial critique of President Barack Obama - employing the challenger’s usual strategy of making the campaign a referendum on the incumbent. What a good way to put it. Said more in sorrow than in anger, this statement allowed Romney to play the father disappointed in his well-meaning teenage son, who had driven the family car (or, in this case, the economy) into a ditch. It displayed no disdain for the president (that can be done at private fundraisers). It allowed voters to separate the president, whom many still liked, from his presidency, which most disapproved of.
With unemployment stuck at more than 8 percent, weak growth, millions of homeowners still underwater and a general feeling that no one is better off than he or she was four years ago, the theory went, voters would be more than willing to take a chance on the new guy.
But a couple of things happened to that strategy along the way to Election Day: One was named Paul Ryan, and the other was named Mitt Romney.
Romney initially found himself playing defense because of the Obama campaign’s early advertising. This barrage helped to define Romney as a founder of Bain Capital, a company that made profits from firing workers and shutting down companies, with Romney nonetheless taking his share of those profits, some of which were stashed in havens in the Cayman Islands, although we couldn’t be sure how much because he wouldn’t release all his tax returns.
With the argument no longer viable that Romney would do for the United States what Bain did for the private sector, he looked to other lines on his resume. They were more trouble than they were worth: He was governor, sure, but of a blue state where he dabbled in socialized medicine and was soft on gays, women and Democrats.
Saving the Olympics? Yes, but because of federal money as much as management acumen. He became so defensive about that chapter, he overshot his mark when visiting London just before this year’s games, criticizing them before they even started. The rest of his trip wasn’t that great, either.
By then, the election was no longer about the lousy job Obama was doing but about the lousy campaign Romney was running. The initial strategy - turning it into a referendum on Obama - was in tatters, and Romney needed to click the “Refresh” button.
He had two big opportunities to turn the election back into a referendum - his choice for his running mate and the convention. But by choosing Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, an archconservative famous for his draconian budgets, Romney made the race even more about Romney.
Yes, Ryan might help Romney secure his base - which was (and still is) suspicious that the flip-flopper has permanently settled on its side - and he might help Romney answer critics declaiming him for not being specific about what he would do in office. Yet Romney found himself explaining what Ryan would be doing in office. The Ryan Plan to address the federal deficit was famous; there was no such famous Romney Plan. Could anyone name one point of Romney’s 59-point plan? (Oh, never mind: It was later replaced by a five-point plan. At least his campaign was getting more concise.)
When Romney realized just what was in Ryan’s plan, he flipped like a seal. He said he and Ryan would be running on the Romney budget, whatever that is, not the one cooked up by deficit hawks in Congress, and on his Medicare-reform plan, whatever that is, not one that would alter Medicare drastically and cut it by $716 billion.
Romney blew his vice-presidential choice. The election was no more a referendum on Obama than it had been before Ryan’s selection. Surely Romney could get his campaign back to its core message at the Republican National Convention, where he would be executive producer, director and star.
He spectacularly didn’t. The great manager didn’t manage his convention. As he limped out of Tampa, Fla., after two failed attempts to regain control of his campaign, he was hit with something he couldn’t control: a videotape of remarks to a gathering of fellow plutocrats. In an impressive display of efficiency, he insulted 47 percent of Americans in one fell swoop, some of whom no doubt labor in one of his many houses or are building his car elevator. To Romney, they are self- described victims, failing to take responsibility for themselves, waiting for government handouts.
How could someone whose stock in trade was his very CEO- ness let things get so bad? Romney has probably been thinking about running for president for more than four decades, since his father’s defeat in 1968. He has spent the better part of the last six years actually running for president. Yet he has managed to bungle the main message of his campaign.
Now this election is a referendum not on the incumbent, but on the challenger. And Romney has to show that he is more competent than his campaign. (“That was me,” he admirably admitted on CBS’s “60 Minutes” when asked about that videotape. “That’s not the campaign.”) He has to show that he understands the lives of the people he would lead (or is “likeable enough,” as Obama said of Hillary Clinton), and that he is the better person to run the country.
Romney brought this burden on himself. As for Obama? All he has to do is show that Romney may be a nice guy, but he just isn’t up to the job.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.