I don’t really want to pile on, but the question for me is: how does a major presidential candidate in the 21st century (and a guy who has been running for office now for seven straight years) screw this up so badly?
As a resident of Massachusetts, I watched Romney as governor, he wasn’t a disaster and I don’t think he ever displayed the level of incompetence that we’ve seen recently. So what’s going on?
As governor, Romney’s staff was small and most decisions were made within a tight-knit group of advisers. He governed a state in which the Democrats held both houses of the legislature with overwhelming, veto-proof, majorities. Given the constraints, he took risks, often made quick judgments, and went straight to the cameras in an effort to get out ahead of slower, entrenched Democratic Party leadership. He also vetoed more than 800 bills — almost all of which were overturned.
He’s now been running for office for nearly seven straight years and he’s developed a campaign organization, and strategy that is similar to his governor’s staff with its emphasis on “efficiency,” streamlined decisionmaking, and quick response. He relies heavily on a small group of core political (not policy) advisors and his world is about rapid reaction, getting out in the lead, and staying ahead in instantaneous news cycles. Nuance and complexity don’t fit. Wonky candidates are seen as indecisive — Al Gore, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis — and they lose. Every talking point is carefully crafted to resonate in the politico echo-chamber. Romney disdains Obama and the complexity of Obama’s policy because he’s spent the past four years creating fictions and simple caricatures.
But there are risks to this style of campaign — the message lacks depth and the process lacks checks.
This hasn’t been a problem on most domestic issues where Romney has experience and a certain comfort zone — he can pivot and fill in substantive gaps on policy when confronted by journalists or potential voters on the campaign trail. But the risks are exposed on foreign policy where he has no real experience to ground or contextualize the talking points and the simple caricatures he’s constructed. He still doesn’t have a weighty foreign policy expert traveling with him on a daily bais who can provide a check on the substantive side. His initial statement on the Libya events and the doubling down on that statement appear to have come without consultation with a wider group of foreign policy thinkers within the party. He and his campaign didn’t appear to contemplate that there might be uncertainty about the fast moving events. They didn’t appear to comprehend the complexity of the situation. They didn’t appear to understand the potential reaction to their rapid political response to a tragedy.
I don’t think Romney’s glaring mistake here was that he shot from the hip. I think it goes deeper. Here’s a guy (and a campaign) who is clearly thin on national security and foreign policy; a guy who has made a number of mistakes in the past two months — the fiasco of his highly touted foreign tour, the bizarre neglect of any mention of veterans or the war in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech, and now this. Yet, neither Romney nor his inner circle seem to have acknowledged their weakness — even to themselves. This is what I find most troubling — the inability to self-reflect, to acknowledge a mistake (even if the acknowledgment is purely internal) and to fix a glaring weakness. It’s a failure of the candidate, it’s a failure of his inner circle, it’s a failure of the campaign’s organizational structure, and it’s all too close to George W. Bush for my taste.