Some of the Republican strategists working for Mitt Romney have already shown President Obama how to derail the governor’s campaign in a general election. Now, this isn’t to say that some disgruntled members of the Romney camp have met secretly with Obama’s advisors in Chicago, slipped them a briefing book and said, “here’s what you’ll need.” This act of self-sabotage was unintentional. It took place eight years ago at a time when Romney was in his first and only term as governor of Massachusetts and the Bay State’s junior Senator was the Democratic presidential nominee.
How could Republicans have foreseen that the same lines of attack they used against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) might be used against their own party’s nominee in 2012?
Kerry and Romney are remarkably similar candidates. Broadly speaking, both men are unabashedly wealthy, Boston-area transplants who speak fluent French. Despite having trouble connecting with Joe Sixpacks, each sought to challenge a sitting president during a period of turmoil. Sure, they have different policy perspectives, but their perceived flaws are fundamentally the same — to the point where Democrats can almost cut-and-paste the George W. Bush campaign’s 2004 playbook when they face Romney in the general.
“The problem for Mitt Romney,” says former Bush strategist Mark McKinnon, “is his weaknesses reflect Obama’s strengths in the same way John Kerry’s weaknesses reflected George Bush’s strengths.”
Flip-Flopper: This attack is a major reason why Kerry didn’t make it to the White House. And guess who produced the famous TV spots that Bush used to make that label stick? Stuart Stevens, a consultant who is now a top advisor to Romney. Stevens, who didn’t respond to a request for comment for this piece, will now have his work cut out for him defending his boss against the phrase he helped fashion into a political bludgeon. Romney’s list of supposed flip-flops is, depending on who you ask, incredibly long. Most recently, he was accused of reversing his position on the Blunt amendment before it was voted down in the Senate. Romney first told reporters he was “not for the bill” but later told a different media outlet, “Of course I support the Blunt amendment.” The Obama camp called it just “his latest flip flop.”
The aloof factor: It all started with the $10,000 bet he made with Gov. Rick Perry. Then there was the $374,328 Romney made in speaking fees, which he brushed off as “not very much.” The remark about his wife driving a “couple of Cadillacs” followed, and then there was Romney’s trip to the Daytona 500. Asked if he followed racing, Romney said “Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.” At least he hasn’t been photographed windsurfing.
In 2004, Bush was able to convince voters that Kerry was an elitist who didn’t share their interests because, in part, he was willing to raise taxes. Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, who advised Kerry during his White House run, says Romney’s seemingly out-of-touch comments have opened a similar line of attack. “There’s nothing wrong with being rich,” Shrum says. Rather, the argument against Romney will be that “he doesn’t care about you.”
A single-issue focus: 2004 was a national security election because of the issue of terrorism and the debate over the Iraq War. Shrum says it would have been “crazy” not to make Kerry’s military service central to the campaign narrative. But by putting the focus on Kerry’s service during the Vietnam War, it reopened the controversy about his activism against the conflict. That, in turn, made the senator acutely vulnerable to the attack launched by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Shrum says “they would have attacked him anyways,” but some argue the message wouldn’t have been as potent if Kerry hadn’t used his war record as the principle rationale for his candidacy.
Romney has similarly made his business background central to his candidacy’s rationale. He’s now the CEO problem solver, for better or worse. And like Shrum, Stevens defends the decision to hyper focus Romney’s narrative. “The economy is overwhelmingly the issue. Our whole campaign is premised on the idea that this is a referendum on Obama, the economy is a disaster and Obama is uniquely blocked from being able to talk about jobs,” he told the New York Times magazine. Romney’s record, though, also includes flipping companies and shedding thousands of jobs in the process — a key general election line of attack for Democrats in the fall.
A top-heavy campaign: There are stories, legends really, of Kerry sitting at the head of a long conference table in his campaign’s Boston headquarters and listening to his consultants squabble endlessly during strategy meetings. Shrum admits there were moments when there was disagreement and that was “disruptive” to the campaign, but denies they were “top heavy.” Outsiders, though, criticized the Kerry campaign for being rife with internal disputes between big-name consultants who battled with each other while collecting hefty fees. The Romney campaign, by most accounts, is being fairly well run, but there are signs of top heaviness. Politico, for instance, has written about Romney’s “consultant wars” being waged by Stevens, and former advisors Mike Murphy and Alex Castellanos.
The Washington Post has also catalogued some costly campaign practices. The paper recently detailed how Romney has paid a former staffer’s firm $4.6 million for fundraising consulting when the Obama campaign has reported $75,000 for the same type of expenditure. Money won’t be an issue for Romney. What will be an issue is how he spends it and whether the advice he’s getting is effective in helping mount a credible challenge to the president.
The Massachusetts factor: Kerry didn’t make his home state central to his campaign’s narrative. At his 2004 DNC acceptance speech in Boston, he talked about how he was born in Colorado in the “west wing” of an Air Force hospital. He rarely mentioned his experience as a prosecutor or his years representing the state as its junior senator. Romney has similarly distanced himself from Massachusetts, instead invoking his childhood in Michigan in speeches. It could be because of the historical baggage that comes with being a presidential candidate from Massachusetts. For Romney, that record is a particular burden. After all, the last governor of Massachusetts to win his party’s nomination was Michael Dukakis.