Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An Odd Messenger

Throughout the Democratic Convention, the Republican war room has been in full swing. To help spread their message, they've deployed a number of also-rans to grab as much camera-time as possible and regurgitate the same old talking points. Most recently, the chief attack dog has been none other than Mitt Romney, John McCain's former antagonist and now his potential running mate. The choice of Romney for this role is an interesting one because of his infamously flexible principles and his obvious shortcomings as a formidable candidate (note his recent attacks on Joe Biden's foreign policy which would be humorous if they weren't so pathetic). But it's also interesting because of the animosity that was so palpable between he and McCain throughout the Republican primaries. Beyond disagreements over policy, they personally disliked each other and it was obvious throughout the campaign. The LA Times:

Just one year ago, McCain and Romney were engaged in probably the most petty and scurrilous rivalry of the whole election. One aide closed to the Arizona Republican's campaign once told me that, among the ranks, "everyone I talked to hated [Romney]. I have not met a single person associated with the campaign who doesn't." Officials with Romney's primary campaign frequently, though off the record, expressed similar sentiments for their competitor. Indeed, the attacks volleyed between the two GOP figures makes the current general election battle seem like an a exercise in political civility.

McCain's favorite charge against Romney, one that filtered its way into almost every ad, speech and debate line, was that the former Massachusetts governor was a political chameleon - untrustworthy to the core and an opportunist at heart. In late January 2008, when the race was still intense, the Arizona Republican commissioned an absolutely brutal robocall with the following script: "Unfortunately, on issue after issue, Mitt Romney has treated special issues voters as fools, thinking they won't catch on... Sorry Mitt, we know you aren't trust-worthy on the most important issues and you aren't a conservative."

Earlier that month, at a debate in New Hampshire, McCain himself delivered a memorable hit. At a time when even the GOP candidates were hoping to grab a little bit of Barack Obama's "change" mantle, the Arizona Republican resisted, dug in, and took a whack. "[Romney] we disagree on a lot of issues," he told his counterpart, "but I agree you are the candidate of change." The press, sequestered in a nearby gymnasium, howled in shock and journalistic delight. A week before that highlight moment, McCain was even more blunt.

In a TV ad released on December 28, the Senator borrowed a clip from a Concord Monitor editorial stating: "If a candidate is a phony ... we'll know it. Mitt Romney is such a candidate." The spot stung. In an ensuing report on ABC News Romney responded by saying: "It's an attack ad. It attacks me personally. It's nasty. It's mean-spirited. Frankly, it tells you more about Sen. McCain than it does about me that he would run an ad like that."

But such complaints fell on deaf ears. It seemed that McCain took a perverse pleasure out of digging his GOP rival. "Try to relax, Mitt," was his response. Indeed, it went on. Among the other criticisms McCain leveled included accusing Romney of a "wholesale deception of voters," being a "serial flip-flopper" that "voters can't trust" and continually taking "at least two sides of every issue, sometimes more than two." Romney's work as head of Bain Capital, a leveraged-buyout firm, became fodder. "As head of his investment company, he presided over the acquisition of companies that laid off thousands of workers."

And towards the conclusion of the primary, McCain even accused Romney of changing his position "on being a Republican." To be fair, Romney was not always the victim. Blessed with an abundance of self-provided resources, the former governor launched a series of attacks on McCain's character and politics. He compared, negatively, McCain's campaign to Bob Dole's failed candidacy - "The guy who is next in line and the inevitable choice and it won't work" - a political attack twofer that didn't go over well among some in the GOP. Not content to disparage one former conservative, Romney also accused the Arizona Republican of deliberately misrepresenting his position on Iraq in a style "reminiscent of the Nixon era."

Indeed, the vision Romney held of McCain was that of closet Democrat and shrewd political opportunist. He playfully ridiculed the Senator for "thinking about being John Kerry's running mate, in 2004. "Had someone asked me that question, there would not have been a nanosecond of thought about it. It would have been an immediate laugh," he said, before adding: "So we are different. I'm a conservative." On immigration, the hot button issue last year (how times have changed), Romney leveled his harshest charges. In one TV ad, an announcer declared: "McCain championed a bill to let every illegal immigrant stay in America permanently... He even voted to allow illegal immigrants to collect Social Security... On illegal immigration, there's a big difference."

McCain, as is his custom, had a brutal response to the charge. "Maybe I should wait a couple weeks and see if it changes," he said of Romney's own position on the issue. "Maybe his solution will be to get out his small-varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn." But Romney was not deterred. In late January he detailed, in a Fox News interview, all the policies on which his rival could not be trusted. "Senator McCain was against the Bush tax cuts and now says he's for the Bush tax cuts. He was against ethanol, then for ethanol, then against ethanol," said Romney. "I think Senator McCain is willing to say anything to try and get elected. He's been looking for this job for a long, long time."

And as things grew even testier, and the nomination remained up for grabs, Romney went after McCain's leadership, pinning the "failures" of Washington "in the last 25 years" to the Senator's tenure there. On the economy, in particular, Romney argued, "[McCain] doesn't understand how it works." And then, the former Massachusetts governor showed what could be, a remarkable amount of political prescience. "Right now, [the economy] the biggest issue that voters here in Florida are concerned about," he said during an appearance on CNN. "And [voters] want somebody who does understand the economy. And having him time and again say, I don't understand how the economy works, I have got to get a V.P. that will show me how it works, that's a real problem for him."

And now, Romney has become that VP ... maybe.

For a campaign that has delighted in showing old footage of Hillary Clinton going after Barack Obama, Mitt Romney would be an odd choice as running mate for John McCain. Then again, it would bring the total number of homes owned on the Republican ticket to an even 12. There's something to be said for that, right?

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