First, the candidate himself. One example suffices here: his perplexing failure, many years ago when he first decided to run for president, to move his fortune out of Switzerland and the Caribbean, two places synonymous with financial subterfuge, and invest it in Treasury bonds. Had he done so, Romney would have subsequently released to the world the most boring tax returns of the 2012 presidential field.
Henceforth, U.S. politics should have what we might call the Romney Rule: If you want high returns on your capital more than you want to be president, you'll probably end up working closer to Wall Street than Pennsylvania Avenue.
Second, the campaign itself. It has made some odd mistakes, including this week's hapless attack on President Barack Obama over violence in Egypt and Libya. The attack was bad form, displaying a naked opportunism. It was worse politics. As Foreign Policy blogger Dan Drezner tweeted Sept. 12:
What's so stupid about Romney's overeager response to Cairo/Benghazi is that had he held back, the press would have done his work for him.
In other words, without Romney going off half-cocked, focusing attention on his own mistakes, the news media would've instead been asking pointed questions of the Obama administration.
Romney and his campaign have both performed subpar. But subpar is hardly disqualifying. Romney's third problem, however, may be. And it is a problem he cannot shake, ameliorate or compartmentalize.
Most of Romney's troubles stem from his inability to shed a broad range of toxic Republican dogmas. The rhetorical and policy workarounds required for him to be both a loyal Republican and a viable candidate for the presidency have stretched him thin and pretzelly.
Why is Romney unable to discuss health care policy -- his most significant government success -- with any coherence or conviction? Because Republicans told their base that Obamacare was the devil's spawn and Romney (who originated the role of the devil in this theater of the absurd) must maintain the fiction.
Why is the most salient aspect of Romney's budget the gaping hole at its center? Because contemporary Republicans like to play fantasy league politics, in which vast swaths of government are magically excised by a legion of Randian Harry Potters. Voters, however, lack a similar imagination. If they saw real numbers signifying real cuts, they would punish Romney. So the numbers stay hidden and Romney's rhetoric and budget documents appear untrustworthy.
Why must Romney, a multimillionaire, push for highly unpopular tax cuts for the wealthy in an era of guilded inequality? Because his base demands it. If such cuts are bad economics (see the Bush administration, 2001-2009), bad fiscal policy (ditto) and unpopular with the broad electorate, so what? The Republican nominee must support tax cuts for the wealthiest -- no matter how much it costs him in credibility or votes.
The list goes on and on. Indeed, Romney's ill-fated foreign policy attack this week may be derived from the same impulse to appease the fantasies that have taken root in the Republican base, which clings to its belief that Obama is anti-American and vaguely in cahoots with terrorists (though presumably not the ones he has had assassinated).
Romney was a fairly successful governor who made a valuable breakthrough in an extremely complex policy arena: health care. His particular brand of business success would probably not be an unmitigated political boon under any circumstances. But any positive political effects have been buried amid Republican protests that the very wealthiest require additional tax breaks and the poorest need more "skin in the game."
Democrats would've painted Romney as a corporate marauder in any case. But Republican policy demands turned the effort into a simple paint-by-numbers exercise.
Apparently some Republicans think Romney is dragging the party down. He's not. The party is killing him.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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