Monday, August 27, 2012

Tampa: Waiting for the chameleon man

WITH A potential hurricane brewing and the logistics of the Republican National Convention thrown into disarray, Team Romney has been making enormous changes in its lineup at literally the last minute, rapidly caught up in a presentational triage made necessary by the storm gathering offshore, trying to condense what had been four days of events into three.

At this writing (and depending on the furtive movements of Tropical Storm Isaac and its possible trajectory into New Orleans), Mitt Romney is set to accept the Republican nomination on Thursday. The network pundits and analysts have begun speculating on what Romney needs to do in his speech that night, a lock for prime-time, to advance his fortunes with Americans beyond the base.

One TV journalist defined the challenge, with a tabloid predictability, by saying Romney needs to deliver “the speech of his life.”

It’s ill-advised to hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

When the former Massachusetts governor takes the stage on Thursday night, it's a given that Romney needs that opportunity to really have a conversation with the country, not just the people in the Tampa Bay Times Forum. That’s what accepting the nomination is all about. But bigger questions remain: How will the base react to outreach to those beyond the tribe? How will the chameleon man change again, how can the candidate convincingly make the pivot from where he’s been to where he needs to be? And given his previous malleability on policy positions … should the country believe him?

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“After five years, you have left an impression,” Michael Steele said Friday on MSNBC, assessing Romney’s impact as a political persona. But Mitt Romney hasn’t just left an impression, he’s inked a document: This Is Who and What I Am. But the permanence of the ink, its proven ability to change colors when the temperature goes up, are some of the problems that have contributed to a yearlong shortcoming in the likability department.

According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Romney maintains his longstanding net-negative favorables, with 38 percent viewing him favorably, compared to 44 percent unfavorably.

President Obama tops Romney by 35 points — 58 percent to 23 percent — on the likability question. The president bests Romney by 22 points (52 percent to 30 percent) on the empathy question — caring about everyday people.

For American voters, that admittedly squishy and imprecise metric matters. The accessibility of a candidate to your world view, your frame of reference, is one of the more important gauges of electability. It’s often distilled in the old political hypothetical: Which candidate would you like to sit down and have a beer with? In that respect, President Obama —lately become the brewmaster-in-chief — has a natural advantage over a candidate who doesn’t drink beer at all.

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THOSE POLL results lay out the general perception. Now, break it down by demographics: women, Latinos, younger voters and students, and African Americans.

The NBC/WSJ poll finds that Obama leads his Republican challenger by handsome-to-lopsided margins among the components of the Democratic base, with Obama topping Romney among women (51 percent to 41 percent), Latino voters (by a 2-to-1 margin), under-35 voters (52 percent to 41 percent) and African Americans (94 percent to, believe it, 0 percent).

All of which makes a certain sense. What could he possibly have to say to those groups now that he hasn’t said before, directly or indirectly? By accident or by design, Romney has said and done a lot in the previous year that’s told all of them: “Sorry, but I really don’t care, you’re on your own.” That’s why his favorables with those groups are where they are.

Are those vital American constituencies likely to forget that because of one barnburner of a speech at the convention? Don’t hold your breath waiting for that, either.

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“I think if the election were held tomorrow, Obama would win the election,” said Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to the McCain 2008 campaign, told NBC News’ Mark Murray. “And in the balance of days left in this election, Romney has to change the dynamic of the election.”

“He needs to bring definition to the race,” Schmidt said. “Why's he running for president? I think it's an unanswered question right now.” The very fact that a senior Republican analyst would say that, would have to even ask that question less than three months before the election, is problematic in and of itself.

For many months, Romney has communicated an indifference to the challenges of poor and middle-class Americans, and offered policy prescriptions that would preserve and deepen distinctions of class and income. For millions of Americans, as he prepares to accept the Republican nomination, he’s become the avatar of that indifference. His biography is marked by a disassociation with the public he courts, an existential disconnect with most of the people of the nation he presumes to lead.

You don’t change that with a speech at the convention.

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Some of the news analysts’ speculation about Romney’s speech transmits a feeling of it being “Romney’s last chance,” offers the idea that some rhetorical Hail Mary pass is imminent at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. But as the Republican National Committee prepares to roll out a “new Mitt Romney,” they need to manage their expectations about Romney countering the drift of his polling favorables, ever lurking in the 30th percentile, with one jaw-dropping address.

Romney is where he is for a reason. He’s arrived at this point in the campaign for a reason. Over the course of the campaign, as it’s unfolded organically, he’s expressed what comes across as a sometimes accidentally blunt insensitivity to the life stations and perspectives of millions of middle-class Americans.

Over the course of the campaign, Team Romney has navigated an increasingly rightward political course when much of the country is in a very different place, on a variety of issues.

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THE REPUBLICANS gathering in Tampa have to control the expectations that Mitt Romney will “reinvent” or “reintroduce” himself now to the broader American electorate he should have been trying to reach since he clinched in April.

Delivering the speech of one lifetime or ten can’t undo the arc of the narrative he has assiduously constructed over the last year-plus of the current campaign, and going back to 2008.

He can’t un-be who he is, and it’s very late in the day for him to change who we think he is. Any attempt at doing that at the convention, any transforming surprise will be seen for what Americans — with vast historical evidence — believe it to be: the candidate shaking the Etch a Sketch one more time, on the biggest stage of his public life.

Mitt Romney, a man who’s been in and out of numerous self-created containers of policy and philosophy, may now be inside the last box of his 2012 campaign: his own painfully cautious, relentlessly manicured, foundationally privileged image — the box of Mitt Romney himself.

Image credits: Romney: Gage Skidmore, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. NBC/Wall Street Journal poll breakout: © 2012 Peter D. Hart Research Associates, for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal. GOP convention logo: © 2012 2011-12 Committee on Arrangements for the 2012 Republican National Convention.

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