While reading the New York Times account of Mitt Romney’s undignified response to the unfolding events in the Middle East, a particular word jumped out at me. “He personally read and approved his campaign’s statement before it was sent out at 10:10 p.m. Tuesday,” the Times reported this morning.
I’ve seen that word linked to Romney a lot of late. The Republican presidential nominee has been “personally” involved in a bunch of decisions that raise serious questions about his judgment and temperament.
What happened yesterday was the most extreme case so far. During an international crisis, especially when American lives have been lost and are still at stake, the American people want to be assured that the commander in chief is in command — in tone and in his subsequent response. That Romney personally signed off on that politicized and tone-deaf statement before all the facts were known in Libya and in Egypt is unsettling.
The other instances Romney’s questionable judgment are less consequential, but still inform.
Clint Eastwood found his way to the podium at the Republican National Convention because the nominee personally asked him. “Mr. Romney privately invited Mr. Eastwood, of ‘Dirty Harry’ fame, to speak after the actor had given him a gravelly, full-throated endorsement at a star-studded fund-raiser at the Sun Valley Resort Lodge in Idaho this summer,” reported the Times on Aug. 31.The story goes on to note that unlike other speakers at the convention, the campaign did not conduct rehearsals with the legendary actor or demand a script or talking points from him.
The result was a rambling address that stomped all over the subsequent speeches from Sen. Marco Rubio and Romney himself. Instead of the nation seeing in prime time the powerful biographical video that gave Romney a pulse of humanity followed by the candidate’s acceptance speech, it saw Eastwood talking to an empty chair.
The selection of Rep. Paul Ryan was hailed by all as a terrific, if risky, pick.Conservatives love the Wisconsin Republican because of his bold ideas, including turning Medicare into a voucher, as presented in the Path to Prosperity. Democrats love Ryan for the same, albeit shady, reason. And many of all political stripes thought it signaled an elevation of the debate from the picayune to the profound.
In lamenting this situation, Michael Gerson wrote:
The selection of Paul Ryan did not change the structure of the race. What initially seemed like an ideological choice — previewing a shift in campaign strategy and content — now seems like a more personal decision. Romney is comfortable with Ryan and an improved candidate in his presence. But Romney’s message is untouched by his running mate’s revolutionary fiscal realism. Romney chose Ryan, not Ryanism.
There’s that word again. “Personal.”
Romney is a man of many strengths. But one of his weaknesses seems to be supreme confidence in his own abilities and his own gut. How else to explain some of the head-scratching decisions the campaign has made? I’ve heard political professionals say over and over again that this is the result of a meddling principal.
For example, The Post’s Philip Rucker wrote a story about the preparations for the Tampa convention and Romney’s hands-on role in them.
Romney is also playing a hands-on role in the selection of speakers as well as the stagecraft.
“He’s the kind of guy who makes lots of notes and thinks about this kind of stuff,” Rath said. “It’s going to have his fingerprints.”
Earlier this summer, aides showed Romney six options for stage designs to let him pick. But Romney, who after overseeing the Opening Ceremonies at the Salt Lake City Olympics fancies himself as having a trained eye for stagecraft, vetoed all six. He sent aides back to the drawing board before finally settling on a design he liked.
And when Romney’s gut gets him into trouble, his staff is quick to make sure everyone knows the boneheaded decision was not theirs (read, was all Romney). The Times story about Eastwood and the chair is a perfect example of this.
It also startled and unsettled Mr. Romney’s top advisers and prompted a blame game among them. “Not me,” an exasperated-looking senior adviser said when asked who was responsible for Mr. Eastwood’s speech. In interviews, aides called the speech “strange” and “weird.” One described it as “theater of the absurd.”
If Romney continues to personally involve himself in every aspect of his campaign or make personal decisions that don’t make sense politically, then “strange,” “weird” and “theater of the absurd” will apply to his quest for the Oval Office.
The American people are looking for a leader to guide them through these tumultuous times, someone they can entrust their lives and livelihoods to because he or she exercises resolve and clear-eyed judgment. Meeting that threshold of leadership is what Romney should attend to personally.