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Does Romney Even Want to Define Himself?

One of the great ironies of the 2012 presidential campaign is the extent to which President Obama’s team is openly trying to paint Mitt Romney as a strange, vaguely un-American “other,” as Roger Simon writes today. We heard the reverse complaint virtually nonstop during the last four years, first during the 2008 election and then during Obama’s first three years in office. Nearly any critique of Obama doing things differently–another irony, as his campaign was built on hope and change–was construed as an offensive implication that Obama is alien to Americans. Here’s Simon:

Swiss banks accounts? Who has Swiss bank accounts? Others, that’s who.

Biden described Romney using classic terms of “otherness.” Romney, Biden said, was “out of touch” and “out of step” with basic American values….

Nobody is saying (as of yet) that Romney did anything illegal by keeping millions of dollars in Swiss and other foreign banks. It just seems … odd.

What’s happening here, and what has been the source of criticism of Romney from the right for the last two weeks, is not only that the Obama campaign is defining Romney before he gets a chance to define himself, but that Romney doesn’t seem that interested in defining himself at all.

That’s how Simon sees it: “This is the Republicans’ great hope, their great strategy: Forget about Romney. Romney is a cipher, a place holder. He has but one real quality: He is not Barack Obama.” That’s the other irony here: Obama, too, ran as a cipher. We didn’t even know the extent of it until this year, when we learned that Obama’s autobiography was actually a novel about a character Obama thought would be attractive to the Democratic electorate. He studied the identity politics of the left closely enough to discern a formula that could win him the nomination on biography alone. It worked–even though it wasn’t his biography.

So the Romney campaign may not be as lackadaisical as they are accused of being. Their seeming lack of a strategy may in itself be a strategy. But if so, they are misreading the Obama election. When Obama ran, he had a media establishment that steadfastly refused to vet him, wanting no part of debunking a story that won their hearts–facts and journalism be damned.

Romney does not have that luxury. Instead, the media will do what the Washington Post recently did. The Post ran a story accusing Romney of outsourcing jobs at Bain. As Jim Pethokoukis noted, the accusation was wrong—based on ignorance of outsourcing and business. But no matter—it promptly ended up in an Obama campaign ad. This two-pronged assault will continue.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most talented politician in America right now, Chris Christie, gave a speech at the Brookings Institution yesterday. Near the end of his speech, he told a familiar story about his mother’s deathbed reassurances that nothing between them had been “left unsaid.” Christie’s lesson was that when you form important relationships, you cannot be a cipher, a stand-in, a riddle:

We shouldn’t be listening to political consultants whispering in our ear to tell us, say as little as possible.  We shouldn’t be listening to those voices who say, just use the party doctrine and don’t stray. We tell people how we think and how we feel and let them judge us up or down… You can’t lead by being a mystery, you can’t lead by being an enigma, you can’t lead by being aloof, you can’t lead by being programmed.

Christie probably meant this more as a criticism of the president than of Romney, but Romney should take it to heart. According to recent polling, Obama’s supporters are voting for Obama, while a large number of Romney’s supporters are voting against Obama. Romney is not connecting–it’s as simple as that. But the solution is not so simple. It’s easy to produce campaign ads that successfully sow doubts about a candidate. It’s far less obvious how to convince an electorate, especially through advertising, that a candidate is someone they can relate to. This is an organic element of politics, something that tends to come naturally or not at all.

Simon is right that it’s possible Romney can win this way. But if Christie’s right, he can’t lead that way. The transformation of successful candidate Obama to fumbling, incompetent President Obama is a testament to both.