Mitt needs a game changer in perception and reality
Everyone with a mic or a keyboard has begun defining what the selection of Paul Ryan as the Republican vice presidential nominee means for the fall campaign. Words like “bold,” “serious” and “stark contrast” are being bandied ad nauseam, with every possible interpretation for how a Romney-Ryan pairing will shake up the race.
This column won’t pretend to add anything new to that conjecture.
Rather, let’s look at what it means for the perceptions of the race. Because as we all know, in politics perception is reality.
The Ryan pick accomplishes three PR goals for Romney: 1) making him look bold and decisive, 2) changing the narrative away from his taxes and tenure at Bain Capital, and 3) making the worsening poll numbers of the past weeks seem irrelevant given the new dynamic of the campaign.
But looking at each, those accomplishments are not all they seem to be.
First off, let’s give Romney credit for making a quality choice for a running mate, unlike the last Republican nominee. While Ryan was clearly picked for many of the same political calculations that were used to select Sarah Palin, there is no comparison in terms of his intellect and preparedness to ascend to the big chair in the Oval Office should fate place him there. And there’s every reason to believe that Ryan will elevate the quality of the debate and bring even more clarity to the choice America has to make.
Bold and decisive…not
Yet picking Ryan says more about Romney the weather vain than Romney the leader. There’s little doubt that Ryan was not a leading contender up until very recently, when Romney stumbled repeatedly and saw his message and poll numbers both tanking.
Even in the face of a slight uptick in the unemployment rate to 8.3%, Romney could not make his message of the failing Obama economy stick. Romney thought he could ride a wave of bad economic news into the White House. That strategy proved highly flawed, and in picking Ryan it is clear that Romney has jettisoned his battle plan and in a desperate search for a new one that might work.
Anyone who saw the HBO movie “Game Change” (or read the book) can easily envision Romney in the same meeting that saw John McCain facing when his handlers told him that a traditional, safe choice would doom him to a fall defeat. Romney must have hated to learn that his friend Tim Pawlenty would have to be left at the alter again, and he would have to roll the dice if he had any hope of keeping his presidency from declaring bankruptcy before it even opened its doors.
Ghosts of tax returns past
Secondly, Romney is surely praying that the media coverage of his vp choice and the ensuing bus tour (don’t you hate campaign bus tours?) will distract the media and the public from the unrelenting cloud of his unreleased tax returns, which turned out to be more the bane of his existence than Bain Capital.
But you can bet that the Obama camp will only double-down on their relentless attack on Romney’s tax return avoidance. Reporters will surely ask Ryan how many years he was asked to produce. And questions about what effective tax rate he paid will lead to comparisons with his running mate – with Ryan’s rate certainly dwarfing Romney’s. And standing next to an earnest, hard-working, salaried public servant like Ryan can only make Mitt the CEO look more plastic and egalitarian by comparison.
We’ll never know if this was the week that Romney had truly planned to announce his vp pick, but there’s a heck of a good chance it was not.
Much more likely is that Romney had planned to wait until a week before the Republican Convention to unveil the surprise and then ride the crest of media coverage into the convention. That’s when most presumptive candidates do it, and for good reason. The vp selection is generally used to bring drama to an otherwise staged convention and build momentum going into the fall campaign. Candidates who announce their veep too early are generally using it as a desperate gambit of some kind. (Google the name Richard Schweiker some time.) And Romney’s gambit is not hard to discern.
Romney and his supporters saw the election slipping away with polling numbers that are just this side of abysmal. They realized that waiting for a seamless vp and convention bump would in effect cede the summer to Obama and bake the cake of public opinion before the fall campaign even began.
Feeding the cash cows
There’s also a real possibility that Romney’s big money backers were sending the message that their generous patronage might not be so forthcoming if he doesn’t change his downward trajectory and quickly. Indeed, no lesser conservative bomb-thrower than Ann Coulter suggested as much to Sean Hannity. (You know you’re on the wrong path when Coulter is lobbing her molotov cocktails at the Republican in the race.) The thought of seeing their SuperPac ammo dry up must have sent shivers through the Romney brain trust.
So Romney needed to at least appear to shake up the race ASAP, which explains why the VP announcement was hastily staged on a Friday evening, a time usually reserved for bad news dumps.
Parenthetically, it’s a sad commentary on the master of management that he even botched his promised vp app announcement surprise. Romney had marketed the smartphone app on the promise that anyone downloading it would learn of his vp pick before any other living being outside the campaign. It turns out they were the LAST ONES to get the message – a full 13 hours after it was leaked to the world on MSNBC. If Romney can’t deliver on that simple promise (however unrealistic it may have been), how can we take seriously his promise to reverse the world economy through the sheer power of his management acumen?
The bottom line
There’s no doubt that Romney made a meaningful choice in who and how he picked his vp nominee. But that doesn’t change the fact that Romney is still at the top of the ticket.
And there’s little he can do to make that PR problem go away.