Romney's Dilemma

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at Central Campus High School in Des Moine
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at Central Campus High School in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Poor Mitt's in trouble again.

This time it was his campaign press secretary, Andrea Saul. She was responding to an Obama attack ad that claimed that Indiana steelworker Joe Soptic's wife died from cancer because he had no health insurance after being laid off by Bain capital.

The details of this claim are in dispute, but Saul explained that if the worker and his family "had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney's health care plan, they would have had health care."

Oops. Big oops. Double oops.

In other words, they would have been fine if they were under Romneycare. The progenitor for the Affordable Health Care Act. Sounds like an endorsement of Obama's signature bill from his Republican opponent.

The left chortled, but the right went crazy. Their commentators recognized what a gaffe this was, and attacked the Romney campaign for every sin except bestiality. The charges of stupidity were at least accurate, in this case.

But the issues are much larger. Romney has been criticized for being an Etch-A-Sketch candidate with no fixed ideals, but this episode actually reveals two more fundamental problems facing the Romney campaign.

The first big issue concerns Romney's main pitch for the highest office. He has been using business experience as his top selling point, figuring that this will be a winning card in an economic downturn.

It's a bad idea, however. Business is superb training for managing a project that requires executive talent (like the Olympics), but stinks at teaching one how to lead a nation, give a rousing speech, or negotiate with Congress. Just ask Meg Whitman. Or watch Donald Trump. H. L. Mencken observed that claiming the cure for politics was more businessmen was like arguing the solution to whorehouses was to send in virgins.

Our history provides a powerful case study that proves the point. Herbert Hoover was an engineer of great prominence, who excelled at running large relief projects like aid to depressed areas during and after World War I. After that he became an energetic Secretary of Commerce.

But he had no experience as a politician. The very first elected office he ever held was as president of the United States, an astronomical leap. So when it came to inspiring the country during a crisis, to dealing with the legislative branch, he was an abject failure.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has this experience; it is actually his strongest suit. As the Republican governor of a Blue State like Massachusetts, he demonstrated the ability to overcome partisan squabbling, the challenge facing America today. Drawing on this, he could craft a powerful, Reaganesque image that might carry the election.

But Mitt never, ever mentions his gubernatorial years. If he did, he would then be suspect on the right for some of his positions at that time, on gun control, abortion rights, and yes, health care. Positions that enabled him to cross the aisle, get elected, and then govern the state. Mitt doesn't talk about this, despite its potency in a country desperately looking for a leader of all our people who can bridge gaps.

Which leads to Mitt's second, and far larger problem. In order to win, Romney has to sway some independents, which means moving to the center a little, and rejecting some of the notions of the further wing of his party. Ronald Reagan was the master of this; remember his remarkable ability to create and woo Reagan Democrats?

But poor Mitt is a suspect character to the party base, so he can't mention many of his best accomplishments, like the work he did successfully managing a large state, or political skills that might help him be an effective president (which is what everyone seems to want these days). He can't say things, take positions that will attract independents, because he is stuck forever wooing the more rightward section of his base, trying to convince them that he is one of them -- which he never will.

That's Romney's dilemma. If he moves to the right, he loses swing voters; if he moves to the middle, he alienates the large body of party stalwarts. There is no solution to this; he will spend this entire election cycle chasing his tail, trying to find a way out. There isn't one.

This election is Barack Obama's to lose.