The most surprising thing about Mitt Romney since he began laying the groundwork for his 2012 campaign way back in 2009 is just how poor his political skills have been. You'd expect a guy who managed to win a major statewide election in a liberal state to have, if not master-level political skills, at least basic competence. You would not expect to see a guy whose campaign has been a comedy of errors, who so regularly shoots himself in the foot with his own words, or who seems so unable to articulate some kind of coherent message. You might not care for his politics, but you would at least expect Mitt Romney to be a good politician.
Until recently, we've seen nothing of the sort. But I really have to tip my hat to him as a lifelong fan of politics for his performance in the first debate. He and his advisors clearly prepared him thoroughly, went in with a tactical strategy (jump on every question like a coked-up squirrel before Obama can run with it), and executed a political strategy. That political strategy is more long term and forward thinking than anything we've seen from the Romney campaign since…ever, really. It's an amoral, cynical strategy, of course, but they finally came up with one and pulled it off.
The strategy I'm referring to, of course, is to lie copiously. I'm being serious and not giving him a backhanded compliment here. As a campaign and candidate trying to win the election, they made a rational choice that is working out perfectly for them thus far. It may not be enough, but no one can say he didn't make Obama sweat even in victory.
Fact-checkers went at Romney like a pack of starving dogs would greet a man wearing a suit made of ham. Romney's people calculated, of course, that A) most Americans don't give a shit about fact checkers, thanks to a heavy dose of confirmation bias, and B) far more people will read or hear what he said in the debate than any corrections, responses, or fact-checks that come in its wake. There is a clear first mover advantage in a campaign and they took advantage of it.
Here is an example. Romney stated that Obama doubled the deficit upon taking office. This is, by any possible interpretation of the facts, false. It's just not true. Not even close. The most basic advantage is that he moved first – what did Twain say about a lie traveling around the world twice while the truth is still tying its shoes? – but it gets even better. In the wake of the debate, the Obama people have (justifiably) accused Romney of lying copiously about their candidate.
This is actually exactly what Romney was aiming for. It has two benefits for him. First, it makes Obama spend a week trying to refute things that he didn't adequately respond to during the debate. Second, it has made the Obama campaign repeatedly accuse him of lying. And that kind of accusation, the Beltway media are quick to remind us, is not what the American people want to hear. Can't Obama do anything but say "You're lying" to Romney? How uncivil. He must be ashamed of his own record. He's going negative. Etcetera. Can't you just picture the Davids (Brooks or Gergen) saying that as a panel of comatose "contributors" solemnly nod in agreement? Tsk tsk, Mr. President.
Maybe I'm giving him too much credit and this was all just an accident. Even blind squirrels find the occasional acorn. However, if this was intentional it was brilliant. I don't want to imply that Obama naively waltzed into a trap – certainly the campaign has to say "They claimed this about us, and it was a lie." You can't just sit there and take it. But the post-debate response played right into Romney's hands, because he and his campaign understand the bias toward mushy centrism and being Nice in our political journalism. Nothing sounds less civil than saying "You're a liar", so they figured out a simple way to make Obama say it a hundred times in a week.
Well played, Willard.