The team of people working diligently to re-elect Barack Obama should really, right about now, be sending a big "thank you" note to none other than Karl Rove -- for providing them the playbook they are now using to maximum effect on Mitt Romney. Maybe Rove left a copy of it lying around, when the Dubya administration was packing up its things to exit the White House, who knows?
In pre-Rovian times in American politics, election strategy went something like this: Find the major weaknesses in your opponent. Exploit those weaknesses by informing the public what a serious lack each weakness is. Build on attacking the opposition candidate's weaknesses, until you eventually undermine even their strongest points in the public's eye.
Karl Rove, however, stood all that on its head, to brilliant effect. The re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 was the most successful example of this new way of thinking: Find out what your opponent thinks are his strengths. Directly, indirectly, and through innuendo, launch a full-scale attack on his perceived strongest point. When you've obliterated the opponent's main rationale for running, then there'll be plenty of time later on to take on the minor stuff -- the opponent's weaknesses. By destroying the strongest part of their campaign first, you define them to the public before they get a chance to define themselves -- thereby making it impossible for your opponent to create his own "first impression" with the voters. The first impression that they'll get is "the main reason he says he is running is based on a lie," and that's the one that will stick in their minds.
To put this another way, Mitt Romney is finding out what it's like to be John Kerry. The two, after all, have a lot in common -- a political career in Massachusetts, lots of money, and a serious deficit of charisma. Terms such as "Bain-boating" and "Swissboating" are starting to be used to describe the similarities between Romney's current position and the infamous "swift boat" ads of 2004.
John Kerry's strongest point as a candidate was supposed to be his military career (remember that "I'm reporting for duty" at the convention?). This was precisely what got attacked, early and often, from his opposition. Mitt Romney's strongest point as a candidate was supposed to be his financial wizard career, positioning himself as "Mr. Fix-It" for the American economy. Now, his time at Bain Capital is making him squirm in the public eye.
Karl Rove couldn't have done it any better himself. And I mean that as a compliment.
Without getting too far into the weeds of the details of the Bain questions which have now arisen, the public is left with a list of questions and general impressions. The talking heads on cable television get bogged down in the specifics of the charges and countering moves, but here's what the public seems to be taking away from the fracas:
When I sign my name, it means something
This is really the level the Obama team should hit hard next, because it is how the average Main Street American thinks of such issues. "When I sign my name to a mortgage or a credit card application, I know that I am signing up to be responsible for that mortgage or credit card." That's a pretty simple concept that every American knows. Mitt signed his name to documents that said he was responsible for a company. Now he says he wasn't. That is a gigantic disconnect, right there, that should be directly hammered upon in Obama ads, because it goes to the question of responsibility and trust for the voters. You sign your name, and you take responsibility. Everybody knows that, right?
Money for nothing
Another basic fact underlying the whole wrestling match is that -- even taking Mitt's story at face value -- Romney seemed to be getting paid to do nothing. According to Mitt, he "left" Bain in 1999 to run the Olympics, and took a "leave of absence" while doing so, and was not involved in Bain from that point on. OK, then why was he getting paid at least $100,000 per year by Bain? If, as he claims, he was doing precisely nothing for the company, and was on a leave of absence, then why did this salary continue? This goes straight to the heart of how most Americans see life for the one percent: playing a game which they have rigged in their favor. How many jobs do average Americans hold down which allow them to take three years off and still rake in six figures for doing nothing? So much for the whole "Puritan work ethic" thing, eh? As Dire Straits so aptly put it: "That ain't workin' -- that's the way you do it."
What's Mitt hiding?
This is a recurring theme throughout the entire controversy. Romney's "weasel factor" is climbing off the charts. While the whole Bain "When did Mitt quit?" problem certainly adds enormously to this -- every time Romney or one of his surrogates gives one of those oh-so-carefully-vetted-by-lawyers responses to a simple question about Bain, the "weasel factor" goes up another notch. But the real key to this one is Romney's refusal to release his tax returns for public vetting. What is Mitt hiding? That's the question on the lips of most political reporters, which leads to massive rampant speculation about what could possibly be in there that is so much worse for Mitt than taking the continuing (and growing) heat about his non-transparency.
Absolutely nobody, at this point, expects Mitt to live up to the 12-year standard set by his own father, but the really interesting thing to consider is that Mitt should have no problem at all releasing his tax returns back to (at the very least) 2008. Think about it: when you run for president, the first thing you do is get your financial house in order so that it is so squeaky clean that your own mother could visit it and not find metaphorical undusted shelves or uncleaned bathroom appliances. Mitt, assumably, did this in 2008 when he first ran for president. He would have been a fool not to. More to the point, Mitt has been running for president non-stop since 2008. There was no break in his campaign, since the very minute he saw who had won the 2008 election, Mitt's 2012 campaign started. So why can't Mitt release at least the last four or five years of tax returns? There should be nothing controversial at all in there (other than the fact that he's wealthy, which is no surprise to anyone). In fact, Mitt should be able to easily release his tax returns back to when he began as governor of Massachusetts.
To put it another way, say a rich guy decided to run for president. We'll call him (just for argument's sake) "Ronald Rump." Maybe this rich guy hasn't always been in politics, and is just now jumping into the arena. It is entirely understandable why he wouldn't want to release tax returns stretching back a decade, because there are probably embarrassing things there from the period before he got interested in politics.
But that excuse doesn't work for Mitt -- at least not for the years 2008 onwards. Mitt knew he was running for president from that point on... so what's he hiding, really?
Right now, the conventional Republican wisdom is that it would be quite easy to "fix the tax code." What they would do is to "reduce tax rates," but at the same time "broaden the base" by "getting rid of loopholes" -- so, in the end, it would be "revenue-neutral" and bring in the same amount of tax dollars it does today.
For average people, however, Mitt Romney is looking more and more like Mr. Loophole himself. What tiny fraction of voters have offshore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland? Why would one need a Swiss bank account, if not to dodge taxes? That is the question the voters are left with -- and it's not a very good impression. Mitt Romney is asking people to believe his tax reform will eliminate loopholes -- the very loopholes he appears to be taking full advantage of, every chance he gets. It is simply not believable to most folks to then make the leap that he's going to be the one who fixes the loophole problem.
Show us your papers, please
Joe Biden has already used this line to great effect in front of an audience from a crucial demographic: Latinos. What with the Republican "papers, please" attitude on immigration, Biden turned it around and used the metaphor against Romney's love of financial secrecy. While not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, the irony is so delicious that this line could become quite popular among Democrats in general. It only serves to feed into the "What is Mitt hiding?" theme, in catchy and memorable fashion.
To conclude, Mitt Romney is not a happy camper right now. What was supposed to be his strongest political asset is fast turning into his biggest liability. The Obama team is well on its way to defining Mitt Romney to that portion of the public that hasn't been paying much attention until now -- and defining Mitt on the Obama team's terms.
So far, Mitt's team hasn't been very good at responding. This could soon change, however. Last week, the Romney team quietly announced two new hires, in the fields of long-term communications strategy and rapid response communications. By this fall, the past few weeks may be forgotten, and the Romney team may have gotten its political act together. Things change fast in the political world.
One big change, however, seems to be here to stay. Candidates from both parties will continue to use Karl Rove's patented "attack them where they think they're strongest" playbook for a long time to come. For one very simple reason: it works.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant