What Happened to the Romney 'Death Star'?

Byron York is perplexed by what he perceives to be the glaring discrepancy between the Mitt Romney of the GOP primary season and the Mitt Romney who is the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee.

Borrowing from the Star Wars mythos, York refers to the first Mitt as "the Death Star."  In the primaries, Romney spared neither expense nor opportunity to eviscerate his opponents.  Though his ruthlessness vis-à-vis his rivals generally and Newt Gingrich particularly was off-putting to some of the party faithful, the optimists among them viewed it as a potentially promising sign of Romney's ability to reckon with "the Obama killing machine," as York puts it, that was waiting in the wings.   

Thus far, however, the second Mitt has dashed these expectations.  York writes:

"Now, the general election campaign is here, and the talk is of the Obama killing machine, not the Romney death star.  By most accounts, the Romney campaign is not displaying the super-aggressive effectiveness it showed in the primaries."

York identifies five reasons to account for this seemingly enigmatic phenomenon.

The first pertains to what he summarily calls "the facts" -- i.e. Romney's business record and taxes.  Simply put, while these were not an issue with Republican voters, they do matter with Democrats and independents.  This, York thinks, explains the effectiveness of President Obama's relentless campaign against Romney's time at Bain Capital.

The second reason for the lackluster performance of the second Mitt is "the media."  Even in this age of "the new media," the majority of the most influential media outlets remain under the dominance of Democratic-friendly journalists and commentators. So, while Romney had very little media scrutiny with which to contend during the primaries, he is bound to receive the lion's share of it now that he is the Republican presidential nominee.

Third, both Romney aides as well as some Democrats -- like James Carville -- believe that the pro-Obama SuperPACs have so far managed to more effectively direct the course of the campaign.    

Fourth, campaign finance laws prevent Romney from spending one penny of the money that he has raised for the general election until the commencement of the Republican National Convention on August 27.  Hence, Obama -- who didn't have any competitors in a primary race -- has been able to far and away outspend his rival.

The fifth and final reason that explains Romney's lack of aggressiveness is his "complaining."  The second Mitt ought to take the advice that the first Mitt offered to Newt Gingrich when the latter complained loudly about the negative attacks with which Mitt bombard him: "Just take it and hit back harder -- that was the way they saw it," as York says.  He concludes: "Romney is far more self-controlled than Gingrich, but the effect is the same; he's whining about the other guy treating him badly."

York's analysis is not implausible, but, ultimately, it is wanting.  Let's look at reasons (1)-(5).

Obama's attacks against Romney's business record and taxes have not been terribly effective at all.  Granted, they have had Romney on the defensive, but the thing of it is, the former governor of Massachusetts has had no small measure of support from a number of the least likely people -- namely, Democrats, and prominent Democrats at that.  From former President Bill Clinton to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, to present Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to Newark Mayor Cory Booker, distinguished voices from the President's own party have publicly denounced his attacks against Bain Capital and Romney's record while presiding over it.

As for the media, York's judgment is not wide of the mark.  Still, it overlooks the significant fact that even those who are otherwise Democratic sympathizers have taken their fellow partisans to task for the Bain Capital attacks.  CNN's Candy Crawley and David Gergen are two examples.  ABC's George Stephanopoulos is another.

For sure, there is anything but a level playing field for Republicans and Democrats when it comes to media coverage.  However, if media hostility toward Romney is a factor at all in accounting for his tame treatment of Obama, it shouldn't be exaggerated. As the aforementioned examples establish, reasonably fair coverage is not impossible for a Republican to secure.

Maybe the Obama SuperPACs have been more "effective" than the Romney SuperPACs and maybe they haven't been.  But if they have been, as York apparently believes, then this raises but another question: Why?  To this question, we will turn momentarily.

That Obama is outspending Romney in some places due to the restrictions that campaign finance laws impose upon the latter needn't have anything to do with the problem under discussion -- i.e. Romney's lack of aggression.

First of all, though money is important in a campaign, as we saw in the 2008 GOP primaries, the guy with the most money -- in that case, Romney -- can't always buy the prize.

Second, if it is Romney's lack of aggression that we seek to explain, then it doesn't matter who is spending what.  The real question should be: what is Romney doing with the money that he is spending?

Finally, Romney's "complaining" or "whining" is irrelevant. 

For one, all politicians tend to cry foul when they are being assaulted by their opponents. In doing so, they hope to present themselves as the good guys and their attackers as the bad guys.  Furthermore, no one cares whether Romney is complaining or not. People no more care about this than they would care that he is spending his time playing chess or swimming. 

What they care about is that he is not spending his time hitting Obama as forcefully as Obama has been hitting him.

So, we are back to square one.

But, in all honesty, to some of us, there is nothing in the least mysterious about Romney's refusal to unleash the same fury on Obama that he released on his fellow Republicans. 

We may call it the John McCain Syndrome (JMS).

Recall that the same things that York, myself, and others now say about Romney were said four years ago about 2008 Republican nominee, McCain: the Arizona Senator could be ruthless, even contemptible, toward other Republicans, but toward Democrats, especially his opponent, Senator Obama, he was remarkably restrained, even unduly deferential at times.

Yet McCain's rival then is Romney's rival now. 

To put it more clearly, then as now, it is a black politician against whom Republicans have to do battle. 

In 2008, it was a young black man who aspired to be the country's "first black president."

In 2012, it is America's "first black president."

And it is a black politician who has proven himself time and time again eager to play the race card in order to advance his interests.

Does Byron York, or any American who has been alive longer than five minutes, genuinely think that the paralyzing fear of being accused of "racism" doesn't figure substantially in explaining Romney's and the Republicans' aversion to coming at Obama with guns blazing?   

A couple of months ago there was some talk about a Romney SuperPAC that was considering reintroducing America to Obama's one-time "spiritual mentor," as Obama characterized his pastor of over twenty years, Jeremiah Wright.  In light of the fact that this issue, courtesy of the media and McCain, was never explored to the extent that it should have been, and the fact that it now assumes new significance in view of Obama's conduct since assuming the office of the presidency, the ad would have been highly germane to this election.

But as McCain ran from the topic four years ago, so too was Romney quick to renounce just the possibility of such an advertisement.

Until Romney relieves himself of the fear of being branded with the dreaded "R" word, he will not display the same aggression that he exhibited during the primaries.

This is what is missing from York's analysis.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith and Culture. Contact him at jackk610@verizon.net, friend him on facebook, and follow him at twitter.

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