Mitt Romney is getting hosed. Admittedly not in an existentially threatening way, like watching his job get sent to Bangalore while a good health plan evaporates in front of him. But he's still getting hosed—in conservative media, of all places.
This probably sounds rich, considering the things said about him here, but Mitt's manifold shortcomings are so irrepressible that they don't need any help. Just running footage of him doing anything constitutes a pretty substantial critical appraisal. So it's odd to see the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard calling him out. One, they're calling him a rich and shallow guy, which is exactly who they need him to be. Two, apparently this has something to do with jet-skis.
The "dogpile Mitt" fad started last Sunday, when Rupert Murdoch tweeted:
Met Romney last week.Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful.
— Rupert Murdoch(@rupertmurdoch) July 1, 2012
Murdoch chirped the truth: Romney's campaign employs old friends and Massachusetts pols who are slow to change messages and who often go dangerously off-message. Communications Director Eric Fehrnstrom once voiced a basic truth about presidential campaigns as badly as possible when he said that the general election would be like an Etch-a-Sketch: "shake it up, just restart all over again."
Ferhnstrom confirmed Murdoch's concerns when he went on the Daily Rundown and reiterated the old Massachusetts talking point that Romneycare is not a tax, which obliged him to confirm that Obamacare isn't a tax either. Romney's chief mouthpiece gainsaid arguably the most critical GOP talking point for the rest of 2012: that, because Obamacare is a tax, Obama has just levied the largest tax increase on Americans in history. (It's not. Not even close.)
Either because his employees anticipated him or because Murdoch felt like waving his crabbed organ shamingly at the Romney campaign, yesterday the Journal's editorial page swung into action. In a piece that read like a dad TRYING VERY HARD NOT TO TURN THIS CAR AROUND AND GO HOME, the Journal scolded Romney for being afraid of being a flip-flopper and for daily reiterating that the economy isn't working. But if Romney were flip-flopping or pushing social issues daily instead of "the economy, stupid," you probably couldn't find an outlet that would produce more shrieking despair than the Journal. Geez, guys, he's trying to avoid seeming like a waffling (insert serpent's hiss here) Carterite embarrassment while ringing the old GOP money bell; what the hell else do you want from him?
That's not even the weirdest part of the editorial. Here it is:
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is assailing Mr. Romney as an out-of-touch rich man, and the rich man obliged by vacationing this week at his lake-side home with a jet-ski cameo.
The Journal was hardly the only outlet to harp on this jet-ski thing. In just a day, it became a strange totemic object, an exotic display of watersports, irresistible to GOP pundit imagination. It doesn't make a damn bit of sense.
I lived on the Redneck Riviera, a drunk drive along the coast from where The Snake Ken Stabler used to hang with women made of Aqua Net and stonewashed jeans. I have seen people heave freshly caught mullets across the Florabama border, and I have walked into people's garages to discover one wall covered by glued-together Natty Ice empties and another wall covered by a fucking arsenal. In that time I learned beautiful and terrible things about people, and one of those things is that there are almost zero insurmountable economic or lifestyle impediments to owning a jet-ski. (Are you a good mechanic? Because if so, I just found you one for $150.) You can find people who own jet-skis but who, even after months of conversation, give off no indication of occupying a permanent dwelling.
Scooting around a lake on a jet-ski with his wife was a refreshingly normal thing for Mitt to do, and blasting him for it—or for owning a lake house—seems a bit odd given everything else we know about him. After all, the guy campaigned in New Hampshire by mentioning his vacation home there. Then there's his San Diego vacation home, that has car elevators and its own lobbyist.
The economy is of course important. But voters want to hear what Romney is going to do about the economy. He can "speak about" how bad the economy is all he wants—though Americans are already well aware of the economy's problems—but doesn't the content of what Romney has to say matter? What is his economic growth agenda? His deficit reform agenda? His health care reform agenda? His tax reform agenda? His replacement for Dodd-Frank? No need for any of that, I suppose the Romney campaign believes. Just need to keep on "speaking about the economy."
It's a compelling criticism, apart from the fact that, as Salon's Alex Pareene put it, "Republican policies are pretty much universally unpopular once you go into actual detail." Romney's economic growth agenda is to slash taxes on the richest Americans. His deficit reform agenda proposes cuts insufficient to offset those tax cuts while demanding a wholly unnecessary increase in naval ship building, amongst other military spending increases. In simple terms, then, his deficit reform agenda is, "Make the deficit ludicrously fucking enormous," adding a projected $10.7 trillion to it. His health care reform agenda is "repeal and replace," like the rest of the GOP's, and—like the rest of the GOP—he has not elaborated what the "replace" thing would be, because no one has any interest in creating one. Ditto Dodd-Frank, whose "replacement" would almost certainly be the same delightful regulatory capture we've already sat through: more de-funding of the SEC while staffing it with buddies slumming for a few years, hired away from the very corporations they're meant to oversee.
Basically, Mitt Romney is getting jobbed out by two major outlets of conservative opinion-making. It's no secret that Murdoch considers him a feckless technocrat. Kristol—who is avidly wrong about things with a compulsion we usually associate with drug addiction—is probably farming for something to be "important" about. If he gets ahead of criticism in the news cycle and casts a wide enough net of vapid brainstorming, and if the Romney campaign does one thing he suggests, he can smirk his Joker smirk and claim for another year that he's good for something other than weighing down the sack of rats you're throwing into a river.
Murdoch's observation about Fehrnstrom was on the money, but the rest is gratuitous. Romney needs to keep "humanizing" himself, and doing silly stuff with family, on a lake, with a vehicle lots of Americans own, is exactly what he should be doing. Ditto being vague about policy. Every single thing Kristol demands specificity about is a suicidal policy when it's explained to anybody paying attention.
The thing is, if they want to blast Mitt for being weird, out-of-touch and bafflingly bad, he's giving them so much more to work with than jet-skis. Take this piece from Emily Friedman at ABCNews.com, describing Mitt's July 4 event:
"Get out and vote next year, this November, I mean!" said Romney, wiping beads of sweat off his brow. At one point, stopping to guzzle a glass of lemonade, Romney was asked how it tasted, to which he replied, "Lemon. Wet. Good."
That's the thing. Mitt Romney is a bad candidate entirely on his own merits. He doesn't need any help. He can bury himself. His friends can put down the shovels.
As the weeks grind on, it becomes easier to think of Mitt Romney as Chauncey Gardiner in reverse. He's a smart man who keeps accidentally saying profoundly stupid things. He tries to be ordinary, to avoid embarrassment, then seems like an aristocrat. He's surrounded by privileged handlers who deem him stupid because he's trying to be wisely vague and vaguely wise. In the end, he's going to try to understand all the people who manage him, and instead of walking across the water into beatification, they're going to hold him underwater until he drowns.
Image by Jim Cooke.