Mitt Romney's Definition Problem

America's 2012 Presidential election has now officially entered its "English Class" stage. On Election Day they'll get a pop quiz to see how well the national voting class learned the teachers' definitions. Top grade goes to the teacher whose definition was learned.

In this game, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney better get cracking.

Defining opponents is an art that goes back many years. Think Republican Thomas E. Dewey (defined as a stiff, out of touch, reactionary bore by incumbent Democratic President Harry Truman), GOPer Barry Goldwater (defined as a scary war monger with an itchy nuclear finger button by LBJ), Democrat George McGovern (defined by President Richard Nixon as an extremist not representing the Silent Majority) and Democrat Michael Dukakis (defined by the late Lee Atwater but partly by himself, when he rode helmeted in that tank and DID look like Snoopy.)

But nowhere is defining more important than in advertising, where corporations invest millions to create images that mentally instantly define companies. McDonald's didn't create Ronald McDonald to look like a member of Congress -- no matter what you think. They created him to bond with the kiddies and bond with the kiddies' parents' money.

Team Obama is trying to define Romney as a dorky out of touch corporate raider, a tool of talk show culture and Tea Party style Republicans and a flip-flopper who'll take any position to win votes. He's being portrayed as political Silly Putty that could be squeezed into doing the bidding of his party's most extreme elements, and who'd set the clock back to the Bush or maybe even Herbert Hoover era. Team Romney seeks to paint Obama as a hapless liberal ideologue in over his head, whose clueless, ineffective policies reflect a lifetime of ignorance of business, the economy, and job creation.

Romney's key problem is that he and his super PAC spent so much time and money ripping apart other Republicans during the primaries that he hasn't laid out a comprehensive case for himself or solidified his own image for voters in terms of precisely who he is as a politician and as a man. Instead, he's giving late night comedians tons of material.

New York Times reporter Timothy Egan calls it Romney's "weasel problem," which, he writes, is Romney's "continued inability to honestly face up to his own life story and those inconvenient truths that interfere with the ideas of the vocal right-wing of the party whose standard he will soon bear. On multiple occasions over the last year, Romney has shown a tendency to dodge, weave, parse or deny in such a way that it outweighs the original offense. It's his weasel problem, a real character flaw."

Indeed, many analysts now suggest that when President Barack Obama recently came out in support for same sex marriage after quick-mouthed Vice President Joe Biden seemingly accelerated a planned timetable, it was partially because the Dems wanted to ensure Obama's contrast with Romney was clear. But Obama took a political hit: the CBS/New York Times poll found 67 percent felt Obama's announcement was for political reasons.

Romney's method of handling negative publicity is defining him more than all the brutally partisan ads from Camp Obama can do. Nixon never lived down his "I am not a crook" comment. Bill Clinton's image was forever tarnished by his lying "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" comment. And former Sen. John Edwards' long-denied affair with Rielle Hunter while he portrayed a loving husband campaigning with his dying wife Elizabeth, while using big bucks from donors to support his girlfriend, gives Edwards enough character flaws to supply the entire Congress.

Even a can of baked beans at Safeway doesn't accept Romney's explanation that he can't recall a high school incident reported by the Washington Post -- and sourced by five former classmates -- which involved a bully -- Romney -- forcibly clipping an apparently gay student's hair. Romney should have simply apologized and, as some suggest, said that when he was a kid he did some really dumb things.

A lot of adults did really dumb things as kids. And adults as adults do dumb things, too. In fact, in listening to all the partisans spinning and delivering tiresome and predictable talking points on ideological cable shows, it seems as if both parties have answered the request of that famous song: "Send in the Clowns."

©2012 Joe Gandelman


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