For a man hoping to convince Americans that he is better to lead this country than the current occupant of the Oval Office, Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to be bothered by his lack of specifics. The presumptive Republican nominee wasn’t specific about how he would douse the “prairie fire of debt” he talked about in May. He didn’t have much to say of substance last month when the Supreme Court gutted the Arizona immigration law. President Obama hit him earlier this month for a lack of specifics on his plans for Medicare. And he wasn’t specific enough in the foreign policy speech last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Romney’s actions and the attendant criticism have me experiencing deja vu. For this is exactly what happened in 1994 when Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-N.Y.) ran for a fourth term against a little-known state senator and former mayor of Peekskill named George Pataki (R). Now, Romney isn’t as little known on the national stage as Pataki was on the state stage back then. But Romney’s studied practice of avoiding specifics and running on the unpopularity of the incumbent mirrors that of Pataki’s.
The parallels between the 1994 New York gubernatorial race and the 2012 presidential race are striking. In a news story on Election Day 1994, the New York Times dubbed the Cuomo versus Pataki contest as “the most expensive — and arguably the most negative — gubernatorial campaign in state history.” Obama versus Romney is already negative and is bound to be the costliest presidential election in U.S. history
There are parallels between the four men, too. “Cuomo was a great speechmaker,” said Mitchell Moss, professor at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service and an expert on New York City and state politics, alluding to Obama’s speaking prowess, “and Pataki was a tall, nice guy who lacked any oratorical skills, just like Romney.”And then there was Pataki’s purposeful blank slate.
“Pataki was a largely unknown State Senator who ran on two issues: cut taxes and reinstate death penalty,” Moss said. “He did not have any other issues, so it was a campaign based on voters being tired of Mario Cuomo, who was seeking a fourth term. Pataki was an unknown guy — who had the conservative party line, but kept his ideology invisible.”
This didn’t go over well with New York City’s mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was elected in 1993. Because he was the first Republican elected to the job since John Lindsay in 1965, Giuliani’s endorsement carried great weight. I was a cub editorial writer at the New York Daily News at the time. And let me tell you, Giuliani’s October Surprise was breathtaking. Not only because he endorsed Cuomo but also because of what he said in doing so.
[T]he sense that I’ve gotten from George Pataki is that it is very much a campaign out of a political consultant’s playbook. There are cliches, there are slogans, there’s the right sound bite, there’s the right position. You become specific only for as long as you have to and then you become general again. . . .
George Pataki’s only essential characteristic is that he offers an alternative. Strangely, however, after lengthy analysis and, I assure you, a lot of soul searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is George Pataki who best personifies the status quo of New York politics — a candidate taking as few positions as possible, all of them as general as possible, taking no risk and being guided, scripted and directed by others. He has simply not made the case in any way at all that he’s the agent of change.
Romney’s problem has not been ideological invisibility. It’s that he has been all over the ideological map on every issue during his political career and then vague now that he’s the GOP standard bearer. Michael Tomasky quickly catalogues them in his blistering Newsweek piece out today that ponders “The Wimp Factor: Is [Romney] just too insecure to be president?”
The catalog of Romney flip-flops is lengthy and by now famous: abortion rights; support for Planned Parenthood, to which he and his wife once wrote checks, now in his gun sights; Grover Norquist’s “no tax increases” pledge, which he admirably refused to sign as a gubernatorial candidate but since 2007 has taken up with gusto; on immigration, where he once supported a path to citizenship; on guns (he supported the Brady Bill in the 1990s); on “don’t ask, don’t tell”; and, most famously of all, on health care. . . .
All politicians undergo a tuck here and a trim there. Comparatively few turn outright somersaults on big issues, let alone half a dozen or more of them. What gives? Most pols in Romney’s position would think: OK, I’ve got to change some stances, but I’d better keep one or two, just to show I stand for something, and accept the consequences. But not Romney.
“Not Romney” because the former Massachusetts governor spent and continues to spend a lot of time trying to convince conservatives he’s one of them. “[T]hat is because he is running as a candidate of a Republican Party that has adopted some anti-female and anti-immigrant policies, (as well as the Ryan budget) which Romney has gone along with, as a way to win the nomination,” said Moss.
“Romney’s campaign is specific on Obama’s economic record, but deliberately vague on his own record as governor of Massachusetts and what he did before Bain or specifically at Bain, which is why the tax returns are potentially important to understand his success there,” Moss continued. Romney has released the returns for 2010 and the estimate for 2011. During an interview yesterday in Jerusalem with ABC News’ David Muir, Romney reiterated once again that no more would be released.
Just as Pataki campaigned largely on Cuomo’s unpopularity, Moss said Romney “is hoping to win on Obama’s economic record, not his own campaign positions.” If you don’t think this could work for Romney remember this: Pataki won.