There is conventional wisdom in politics that suggests any re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. As the strategy goes, the challenger’s goal is to make the campaign all about the incumbent’s record and why the voters should make a change. In other words, the qualifications or characteristics of the challenger are less important than the perceived success or failure of the incumbent.
Presidential elections are no exception.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter sought a second term amidst an economic downturn. Inflation and interest rates had skyrocketed, and millions of Americans were out of work. Foreign policy news was not much better, as the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and Iranian radicals had held 52 Americans hostage for nearly a year. The President’s challenger, 69-year-old former actor and Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, was dismissed by many as a political lightweight. Reagan had run for President in two prior elections in 1968 and 1976, but never even made it out of the Republican primaries. This time, however, was different. The country was in dire straits in the fall of 1980. During a debate held approximately one week before the November election, when the polls were still relatively close, Reagan posed the rhetorical question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” For many, the answer was a resounding “no”, and—just like that—the election was over. Reagan won in a landslide (capturing 44 of 50 states). Whatever doubts people may have had about Reagan, they were simply fed up with President Carter. Reagan’s 1980 campaign has become the template for the referendum strategy against incumbents.
President George H.W. Bush faced a similar fate in 1992. Midway through his first term, Bush was enormously popular, especially after US-led coalition forces pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the first war in Iraq, which lasted about one hundred-hours. At one point, the President enjoyed an 89 percent approval rating among voters – the second highest rating ever (second only to his son, George W. Bush, who had a 90 percent approval rating in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks). He seemed virtually unbeatable. However, by the time of the election, the economy was mired in a recession. Also, to make matters immeasurably worse, President Bush compromised with Congressional Democrats on a deal to lower the federal budget deficit and broke his infamous “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. Thus, Bush not only subjected himself to a relentless attack for reneging on a campaign promise, he also alienated many members of his Republican base. The President was challenged by conservative commentator Pat Buchanan for the Republican nomination and suffered a humiliating loss in the New Hampshire primary. His approval rating dropped all the way to 29 percent. The President was ripe for the picking. (Enter William Jefferson Clinton.) Few had ever heard of the Arkansas Governor when he emerged from an underwhelming slate of Democratic candidates in 1992. Even the persistent rumors of infidelity were not enough to derail Clinton, who, in fairness, was a masterful politician in his own right. Once again, the campaign was not about the challenger, however charismatic he might have been. Instead, the Clinton campaign made it very clear what the election of 1992 was about: “It’s the economy, stupid!” With that familiar refrain, Bush joined the ignominious ranks of the one-term presidents.
No presidential candidate in recent memory has embraced the referendum strategy more enthusiastically (or, perhaps, more desperately) than Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee. We got a preview of Romney’s modus operandi during the Republican primaries when, backed by an overwhelming fundraising advantage, his main tactic was to discredit his competition. He declared that there was “no whining in politics” after he destroyed Newt Gingrich with a barrage of negative ads in the Florida primary. Romney similarly dispatched Rick Santorum in subsequent contests. All the while, he advanced only vague policy positions and insisted on privacy with respect to the most revealing parts of his life and career, including his business, his wealth and his faith. The Romney campaign has made no secret of its intention to remain short on details. As one advisor noted: “[t]he nature of running a presidential campaign is that you’re communicating direction to the American people… Campaigns that are about specifics, particularly in today’s environment, get tripped up.”
Romney doubled-down on this strategy after securing the Republican nomination, seeking to keep the focus almost exclusively on the President’s record. No one disputes that President Obama inherited an economy in recession—the worst since the 1930s—and the recovery has been tepid, at best. The unemployment rate has been above 8% for 44 consecutive months – the longest period of sustained unemployment in American history. These conditions make President Obama quite vulnerable to defeat, much like Presidents Carter and Bush Sr. Therefore, Romney’s main imperative is to accuse President Obama of a failure to create jobs and to turn the economy around. He can barely contain his glee with the release of another dismal jobs report each month. On its face, this myopic strategy makes sense. They are 23 million Americans who are out of work, underemployed, or have stopped looking for work altogether. The majority of Americans believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. However, Romney has shown little inclination to explain what, if anything, he would offer by way of an alternative vision for this country—except that he is not Barack Obama. In short, Romney seems content to run for President as the proverbial “Brand X”.
Thus far, Romney has remained fairly close in the polls, which is a testament to just how uneasy people feel about the economy. Eventually, Romney will have to fill in the blanks and provide details on his plans. And there will be a lot to cover. Here is a closer look at some of the topics that Romney has effectively deemed off limits during this election season:
For months, the central theme of the Romney campaign was that Romney’s experience as co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Bain Capital, a private equity firm headquartered in Boston, made him uniquely qualified to serve as president in these challenging economic times. To be sure, Romney was an extraordinarily successful business man. Under his leadership, Bain Capital invested in or acquired hundreds of companies, including AMC Entertainment, Brookstone, Burger King, Burlington Coat Factory, Domino’s Pizza, Dunkin’ Donuts, The Sports Authority, Staples, Toys “R” Us and The Weather Channel. Romney, who would proudly tell anyone who listened that he ” spent [his] life in the private sector,” claimed to have created 100,000 jobs during his tenure at Bain Capital. This record as a “job creator” (a favorite expression of Republicans) demonstrated that, according to Romney, he was tailor-made to lead the country out of the recession and back to economic prosperity. Unfortunately for Romney, things did not go according to plan.
By offering his experience at Bain Capital as his chief qualification to be President, Romney invited additional scrutiny on the business practices of the private equity firm. And, for reasons that remain unclear, he seemed completely unprepared to respond to the predictable polemics that followed. The trouble started during the Republican primaries when his opponents – principally Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich – used Bain Capital to brand Romney a job-destroying “vulture capitalist.” They cited numerous examples of how Bain Capital took over companies, saddled them with debt, paid itself hefty management “fees,” and then left the company to die in bankruptcy, thereby putting thousands of people out of work in the process. Gingrich’s super-PAC even created a 28 minute documentary entitled “When Mitt Romney Came to Town”, a melodramatic account that purported to tell the tale of a predatory corporate raider.
Romney was able to weather this initial storm due in large part to the fact that both Perry and Gingrich were inept candidates (and neither posed a serious threat to Romney). Moreover, taking a position against the “creative destruction of capitalism” is tantamount to an act of heresy among business-friendly Republicans. However, the primary fight laid the foundation for future attacks by President Obama and the Democrats. They aggressively challenged the veracity of Romney’s claim that he created 100,000 jobs. After all, the Democrats pondered, can Romney legitimately take credit for jobs created by entrepreneurs he advised or through deals with which he was only tangentially involved? Independent fact-checkers also cast serious doubt on the 100,000 jobs claim. Romney quickly dropped any reference to that bloated figure in his stump speeches. The Washington Post also reported that Bain Capital invested in a series of firms that specialized in relocating jobs done by American workers to new facilities in low-wage countries like China and India. Romney’s defense against these charges was that they happened after 1999, when he left Bain Capital to run the 2002 Winter Olympics. Yet, Romney’s name, alo3 ng with his signature as CEO and Chairman, appears on documents filed by Bain Capital with the Securities & Exchange Commission through 2002. Financial disclosure forms filed by Romney indicate that he earned at least $100,000 as a Bain “executive” in 2001 and 2002, separate from investment earnings. Senior campaign advisor Ed Gillespie proffered that Romney took a leave of absence in 1999 and “retroactively retired” in 2002 as of 1999. Such a convoluted explanation strains credulity.
Despite pushback from some high-profile Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Corey Booker, President Obama welcomed the discussion on whether Romney’s success at Bain Capital qualifies him to be President. As President Obama noted, the goal of private equity firms like Bain Capital is, ostensibly, to create wealth – not jobs – for a few investors. Conversely, the goal of a President needs to be an economy that works for everybody. Therein lies the critical difference.
After blistering attacks from the Obama campaign, Bain Capital, which was once the raison d’etre of his candidacy, soon became a liability for Romney. Rather than entertain the discussion about the role of private equity in our economy, Romney has downplayed Bain Capital, and, instead, now tries to deflect the discussion to President Obama’s “feckless” economic record. Rarely does he even mention Bain Capital anymore; during an interview in August, Romney implied that he wanted President Obama to enter into an agreement not to discuss Bain Capital at all.
Remarkably, in the course of a year, Romney went from repeatedly touting his private-sector experience to potentially offering a deal to take it off the table entirely—a stunning turn of events.
If you were not paying close attention to this presidential campaign, it might have escaped your notice that Mitt Romney actually served as the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from 2002 to 2006. Romney hardly ever talks about his time as Governor of Massachusetts the only experience he has in elected office. As Governor, Romney had a relatively moderate record, a political necessity for any Republican in the heavily-Democratic Bay State (only 12% of registered voters in Massachusetts are Republican). Romney vowed to “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose” and banned the sale of assault weapons (like the one used in the Aurora, Colorado massacre). He also increased government fees and closed corporate loopholes or, as some say, raised corporate taxes—in order to balance the state budget.
More fundamentally, the centerpiece of Romney’s four years as governor was a health-care plan passed with bipartisan support in 2006. The Massachusetts law requires all residents to buy health insurance, all employers to pay a portion of their workers’ health costs, and create a state exchange that offers subsidized plans for people who cannot afford insurance. Romney proclaimed that the law—the first of its kind in the United States—should be a model for the entire country and, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. In 2010, Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (derisively referred to as “Obamacare”). By all accounts, Obamacare and the Massachusetts law (“Romneycare”) are nearly identical. Both laws have an individual mandate, a concept that can be traced to the 1980s when conservative think-tanks proposed it as part of a more market-oriented alternative to universal healthcare coverage. Today, Obamacare, which was the U.S. Supreme Court upheld as constitutional, is an anathema to conservatives. This development has proven to be most inconvenient for Romney. Although he has joined the chorus of Republicans bemoaning the evils of Obamacare, arguing that his legislation was a “state solution to a state problem” that does not work on the national level, Romney plainly lacks credibility on this issue. Indeed, Rick Santorum called Romney the “worst Republican in the country” to make the party’s case against Obamacare.
Typically, having experience as a governor is considered an asset when running for President. In fact, 17 of 44 presidents have served as governors—nearly 40 %. However, in a party where “moderate” is now considered a dirty word, it is exceedingly difficult for Romney to build support with social conservatives and the Tea Party when his gubernatorial record includes passing health care reform, protecting abortion rights, and closing tax loopholes for the wealthy. These sound more like Democratic Party objectives. Therefore, Romney has tried to reinvent himself as a “severe conservative,” which means he has had to disavow himself from his record in Massachusetts. This expungement also had to include his failed 1994 Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy, in which he supported gay rights, proposed tying the minimum wage to inflation and appeared at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. Romney’s record simply does not fit with his new, carefully crafted narrative—Mitt 2.0. Of course, it doesn’t help either that Massachusetts was 47th in the nation in job growth under Romney, a fact that directly undermines his campaign meme as a job creator.
By the end of his term as governor, Romney already had his eye on the White House. He announced that he would not seek a second term in December 2005 and spent much of the following year (212 days) traveling out of state. Romney filed papers to establish a formal exploratory presidential campaign committee on his next-to-last day in office as governor. He must have known that his record in Massachusetts would present a problem for him on the national stage, so he took the unprecedented step of taking all of his staff hard drives and the mail server with him, despite the fact that the drives and all of the information on them were the property of Massachusetts. When asked about this in 2011, Romney said that he did not want the information to be available to “opposition research teams.”
As it turns out, Romney wanted literally to leave no trace behind as governor. And, by the way, don’t bother looking for any records from Romney’s time as head of the Winter Olympics either, because he had those documents deleted too.
Nowhere is Romney’s opacity more alarming than it is with respect to his plans for the economy—inarguably the most important issue in this election. He unveiled a 59-point, 160-page jobs plan in September 2011. Although it is voluminous, the plan amounts to nothing more than a laundry list of vacuous GOP talking points. Romney promises to cut non-defense spending by 5 percent, but doesn’t say what programs that will impact. He wants to repeal all of President Obama’s regulations that supposedly burden the economy, but doesn’t identify which ones. And he pledges to eliminate Obamacare (on the very first day in office no less), but won’t discuss whether or how he would replace it.
Romney’s plans for the tax reform are equally devoid of depth or detail. Specifically, he claims that he will abolish the estate tax, permanently extend the Bush tax cuts (currently set to expire at the end of 2012), eliminate the capital gains taxes for families earning $200,000 or less, reduce the corporate tax, get rid of the alternative minimum tax and reduce income tax rates by 20 percent so that, for example, the top bracket will go from 35 percent to 28 percent. Romney has said he will offset revenue losses from these across-the-board tax cuts by eliminating loopholes and deductions from the tax code. Naturally, he has declined to say which loopholes and deductions he would eliminate in order to make his plan revenue-neutral. The non-partisan Tax Policy Center analyzed Romney’s tax plan and concluded that if he wanted it to be revenue-neutral, he would have no choice but to limit the more popular and expensive deductions (mortgage-interest deduction, health care and charitable contribution deductions), therefore raising taxes on middle-class earners by as much as $2,000 per year. Romney has dismissed this analysis, calling it “garbage.”
Initially, there was hope that Romney’s selection of Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate signaled a substantive shift in the campaign’s overly cautious approach. Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has a reputation for being a serious, numbers-crunching policy wonk. However, we were quickly disabused of this notion when, within one week, the affable Ryan abandoned his detailed charts and graphs, and adopted Romney’s pablum. Ryan was kind enough to inform voters that the Romney campaign would be willing to discuss its proposals “in the light of day”—just not until after the election.
Since 1968, there has been a tradition in American politics that presidential candidates release multiple years of income tax returns to the public. Individual income tax returns, including those of public figures, are private information. But candidates have released such information as a gesture of transparency and, moreover, a way of engendering trust. Ironically, it was Mitt’s father, George Romney, who set the standard by releasing 12 years of tax returns in connection with his presidential campaign. George, then the governor of Michigan, explained why he was releasing so many years’ worth of tax returns, saying, “one year could be a fluke, perhaps done for show.”
Despite this familial precedent, Romney, who is estimated to be worth at least $250 million, flatly refused to release any tax returns. He also resisted demands for his income tax returns in his unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate in 1994, his successful run for Massachusetts governor in 2002, and an aborted bid for the Republican Party presidential nomination in 2008. It should be noted that Romney did release 23 years worth of tax returns to John McCain in order to be vetted as a Vice-Presidential running mate in 2008 (he was ultimately passed over in favor of Sara Palin). However, those tax returns were never made public by the McCain campaign. After several weeks of goading by the media and fellow Republican candidates, Romney finally relented and released his 2010 tax return and an estimate for 2011.
Aside from confirming Romney’s substantial wealth, the tax returns raised a number of issues. For example, in 2010 and 2011, Mitt $6.2 million in federal tax on $42.5 million in income, for an average effective tax rate of approximately 15 percent, substantially less than what most middle-class Americans pay. Romney is able to pay such a low rate because he takes his payments from Bain Capital as investment income, which is taxed at a maximum 15 %, instead of the 35 % he would pay on “ordinary” income, such as salaries and wages. Jaws dropped when it was learned that Romney had an individual retirement account (I.R.A.) with Bain Capital worth as much as $100 million, which hardly seemed possible because when Romney was with the company, from 1984 to 1999, taxpayers were allowed to put just $2,000 per year into an I.R.A., and $30,000 annually into a different kind of account he may have used. Given these annual contribution limits, how could he have amassed such a fortune? Additionally, the tax returns revealed that Romney held a Swiss bank account and various investments in the notorious tax havens of Bermuda, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands.
Seizing on the intense public interest in the 2010 and 2011 tax returns, President Obama, who has released 12 years of his own tax returns, has called on Romney to release additional tax returns. But Romney (and his wife Anne) have been adamant that there will be “no more tax returns”. Democrats have criticized Romney for not providing more than two years of tax information and openly questioned whether he has something to hide about his wealth. To that end, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused Romney of not paying taxes for 10 years, a claim that Romney has vehemently denied.
The tax return issue is truly a no-win proposition for Romney. If he releases additional information, it will arm Democrats with more ammunition to depict him as an entitled rich guy who is out of touch with ordinary Americans and who plays by a different set of rules. This line of attack appears to have had some resonance with voters, particularly in the era of Occupy Wall Street when Americans have a heightened awareness of income equality. In this regard, Romney is the personification of the one percent. However, if he does not release more tax returns, the decision will lead to endless speculation about what he is hiding from the public. Romney has assured people that there is nothing illegal or untoward in this tax returns, but he has steadfastly refused to release the information. Voters will just have to take his word for it—again.
Undoubtedly. there is risk involved in getting into specifics in a campaign. The candidate exposes himself to withering scrutiny from his opponent, as well as the media, and could have his theme hijacked as a result. Accordingly, Republicans maintain that getting into the weeds muddles the message of focusing on Obama’s failures. But, having cordoned off certain topics from inquiry (and side-stepping others), Romney has refused to give voters the most basic information about what he would do as President. And while elections often hinge more on emotions than on facts, voters should not be deprived of an opportunity to make an informed choice this November. That’s unacceptable.
Romney’s ardent effort to avoid any specificity has had an unintended consequence for his desultory campaign. In the absence of an affirmative story, Romney—who comes across as aristocratic and aloof—has unwittingly allowed himself to be defined by his opponents; and it has not been a flattering portrayal (Thurston Howell III comes immediately to mind). Romney’s biggest challenge going forward is to reclaim his narrative and present himself as a viable alternative to President Obama. The Republican base, animated by its disdain for the President, will come out in droves to support Romney, notwithstanding any misgivings they may have about his conservative bona fides. The same can be of President Obama and the Democrats. Presidential elections, however, are won in the ideological center: among moderates and independent voters who want, if not demand, a clear choice between candidates. Rest assured, these voters have legitimate concerns about President Obama’s policies, but Romney’s empty-suit campaign may very well have set the stage for the President to win re-election by default.