This has not been a good week for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Since the end of the Democratic National Convention, President Obama has opened a fairly modest lead in most national polls as well as the battleground states of Ohio and Florida. New York Times contributor and statistical analyst Nate Silver has calculated that the president’s chances of winning reelection are now around 80 percent. Politico has even reported that Romney’s own campaign staff sees a narrower path to victory than they had otherwise anticipated.
Under the present circumstances, Governor Romney has two options:
He can try to make this election a referendum on the president’s handling of the economy while throwing the occasional red meat to the base to keep them jazzed up and in line on election day. However, it also means taking a more passive role and letting events dictate destiny. Or Romney can pursue what Sun Tzu called a desperate ground strategy.
Presidential politics is a lot like warfare. It is a contest for the most powerful position in the world that involves gathering one’s forces, using an opponent’s strengths against him or her and exploiting the enemy’s weaknesses.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. People should want a decent amount of competition when the Presidency of the United States is at stake. But that likeness to war means that American politicians need to understand campaigning as just another – albeit considerably less bloody – form of battle, and no one gives better advice on this than Sun Tzu.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu discusses what armies should do when they are on desperate ground (i.e. when they are near defeat). In this section, Sun Tzu states that armies on desperate ground “can only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay …” Attack, attack, attack and attack again until a weakness in the enemy is discovered. Then, drive a tank through it.
There are signs that this is exactly what Romney has been doing.
Like earlier attacks on Obama’s out-of-context “you didn’t build that” line, incorrect charges that Obamacare had cut $700 billion in Medicare benefits to pay for itself, unfactual warnings that welfare reform was being dismantled and the outright lie that a Wisconsin plant that closed in 2008 did so because of Obama’s economic policies (hint: Obama was inaugurated in 2009). Romney’s campaign is both escalating and multiplying its attacks against the president.
For instance, during the Republican National Convention, Governor Romney explained to “the majority of Americans who now believe that the future will not be better than the past, I can guarantee you this: if Barack Obama is re-elected, you will be right.”
That’s a pretty remarkable statement, coming from the presidential candidate of a major party. Imagine Bob Dole or John Kerry announcing that the world would pretty much come to an end if they did not defeat the incumbent (though with John Kerry, it would have been an accurate attack). But Bob Dole’s fighting days were behind him by 1996, and John Kerry in 2004 was not the John Kerry who spoke at the DNC last week.
But the most recent attacks have shown evidence of even more desperation from the Republican nominee.
After the storming of America’s embassy compounds in Libya and Egypt was reported on Tuesday, Romney stated that he was shocked by the event and, more specifically, by the president’s ‘sympathy’ towards the perpetrators. “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Pay no mind to the fact that the statement he was referring to was a press statement condemning an anti-Islam documentary that was solely issued by U.S. embassy officials in Cairo before protesters stormed any embassy compounds. Tune out the fact that the president disavowed the embassy’s unauthorized statements while still promising to bring the perpetrators to justice. And ignore the numerous conservative commentators and Republican members of Congress who have either distanced themselves from their party’s standard bearer or refuse to join in his newest charge.
No politician or elected official is ever totally safe from being voted out of office. Luck and political tactics can help build up or break down the most well-entrenched incumbent.
Luckily for Romney, Barack Obama is not an entrenched incumbent. National polls only show Romney down anywhere between one and six percent in the wake of Obama’s convention bump. There is still plenty of time for this election to swing in Romney’s favor. And who knows? It may even turn out that the Romney strategists arguing for a more passive campaign are proven right.
But if Obama’s bump in the polls is sustained, voters should expect a more intense and dirtier campaign from the Romney camp in the last few weeks of the campaign. Whether this will cheapen the presidency and Mitt Romney as a person is worth another column entirely.
An incorrect version of this editorial appeared in the print issue. This is the correct copy.