A couple nights ago, insomnia led to channel-flipping, which led to an obscure B-movie called Ready to Rumble. The utterly forgettable wrestling flick had almost induced slumber when I heard one of the characters utter wisdom from an ancient martial arts master: “Always attack the man’s strength…. No one expects you to attack you at their strongest point, that’s where you can defeat them.” That phrase came roaring back to me in daylight hours yesterday when Mitt Romney surrogate John Sununu wished aloud that the president would “learn to be an American.” This offensive statement is the latest feint in the Romney campaign’s feeble attempt to execute the patented Rovian strategy reflected in the wrestling movie. Only Romney’s version is less ancient wisdom and more grade school taunt, “I am rubber, you are glue…”
Sununu’s attempted attack, steeped in birtherism and barely concealed racism, comes straight from Karl Rove’s playbook. Famous for aggressively going after his opponents’ strengths, Rove undercut John McCain’s unimpeachable status as a war hero by engaging in a whisper campaign asserting that McCain betrayed his country under torture and was unfit to lead as a result. Four years later, a paralyzed Democratic base watched in shock and awe when the Swift Boat Veterans launched a similar attack on John Kerry. No one anticipated a brutal blow on a decorated vet by a draft dodger.
But the Romney campaign’s attacks look less like the carefully crafted, strategic offensives that Rove is known for and more like the spastic flailing of a candidate desperate to deflect incoming blows to his own credibility. Already under scrutiny for the very charges he’s trying to glue to President Obama, Romney’s major achievement has been to drive home the belief that his attacks only hold up a mirror to his own weaknesses.
Weeks of unrelenting examination of Romney’s record at Bain Capital are taking a toll, according to analysts of both political persuasions. Newt Gingrich backers first aired first-person accounts by American workers who found their jobs axed and their communities decimated after acquisition by Bain. The Obama campaign takes up the drumbeat, and there seems to be an endless supply of folks who can trace their personal misfortune back to the robber-baron tactics of Romney-led Bain. Since not too many voters’ bucket lists include placing trust during a fragile economic recovery in a guy who made a fortune at the expense of Americans workers, Romney’s response was to lob a lame moniker at the president, calling him an outsourcer-in-chief. He didn’t even sound like he believed it would work as he was saying it.
That feeble attempt to undercut the president pales in comparison to John Sununu’s calling this president un-American. While such theatrics may satisfy the teeny percentage of birthers among the GOP ranks, most people read this attack in context of the vast disparity between the life stories of the two candidates. Romney’s privileged upbringing, which he parlayed into lucrative positions in management and private equity, catapulted him to wealth that makes him worth more than the last eight presidents combined. While a good “rags to riches” story is a mainstay of American cultural mythology, Romney’s story is noticeably absent of rags but is rife with whitewash to cover transgressions against the country he seeks to lead.
Americans—fatigued from far-right calls to release a much-examined birth certificate—are far more interested in why Romney steadfastly refuses to release his tax returns, despite even conservative outlets’ nearly begging him to do so. Speculation that Romney paid no taxes in 2009 feeds concerns of an electorate that this candidate has not shared the pain of this economic crisis. To make matters worse, Romney also spent the last week telling media outlets that Bain filings with the SEC placing him at the company in crucial outsourcing years are false. So either he lied to the SEC or he’s responsible for even more jobs being shipped overseas than previously believed.
Avoiding taxes, concealing documents, lying, destroying American jobs—these may be hallmarks of the 1 percent who place personal gain ahead of duty to country, but these are not elements of the American dream that most of us still aspire to. Those are found in President Obama’s story: born to a (mostly) single mom, raised by his grandparents, struggling to put himself through college. Despite the adversity, he managed to attend the best schools, gave back to his community and excelled at every undertaking. Those who want to believe in bootstraps need look no further.
None of this is to exalt a president who—while having achieved many things of significance—has also made strategic and substantive mistakes and struggles with some challenges of the office. But elections are ultimately about trust, and in such a scenario disappointment and human error will trump deeply flawed character every time.
Romney’s failure to grasp this critical difference has led him to make dizzying campaign errors. Far from executing on the Sun Tzu axiom “kill with a borrowed knife,” a k a use the enemy’s strength against him, his attempts to deflect have only magnified his own weakness. And in doing so, he’s inadvertently personified a different Sun Tzu axiom, “cornered prey mount desperate attacks.”