By Niall Stanage - 01/26/12 10:00 AM EST
Mitt Romney expected his business background to be his greatest asset in the presidential campaign, but it’s looking more like his Achilles’ heel, thanks to his GOP rivals and President Obama.
The peculiar transformation recalls the travails of another presidential candidate from Massachusetts, Sen. John Kerry.
This argument was such a keystone of Kerry’s campaign that he began his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention with a salute and the words, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.”
Within days of that speech, however, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group began its ads casting doubt upon Kerry’s account of his Vietnam service. The Kerry campaign got caught flat-footed, and the verb “to Swift-Boat” entered the political lexicon.
“It’s funny how similar Romney is to John Kerry,” Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told The Hill.
Kondik said Kerry “was sure his status as a war hero was going to be a selling point for his campaign. But there was the whole Karl Rove thing of ‘take your opponent’s greatest strength and make it a weakness.’ Now what’s happening to Romney? The exact same thing.”
Romney, meanwhile, is facing an election year when the nation continues to be plagued by economic malaise. The vitality of the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party attest to a skepticism of big business on both right and left, and Obama is busily trying to paint himself as the defender of the masses against the avarice of a financial elite. And Romney’s Republican rivals have piled on, attacking his work at Bain Capital, the venture capital firm where he made his millions.
“Given where Obama’s message is heading, Romney could be the perfect foil,” Republican strategist Mark McKinnon said. “Obama has the opportunity to make Romney’s strength his weakness, like John Kerry and his military background in the 2004 race.”
Bob Shrum, who ran Kerry’s presidential campaign, does not buy the comparison. He argues that there were few votes really lost at the hands of the Swift Boaters, insisting that “by the time we got to Election Day, the only people who didn’t believe John Kerry was a legitimate war hero were people who were never going to vote for him anyway.”
Shrum cautioned that some people were defining Romney’s weaknesses too crudely.
“I don’t think it’s his wealth that is the problem,” Shrum said. “Franklin Roosevelt was a rich man, and he was elected during what were, obviously, very, very tough times. John Kennedy was a very wealthy man. But people felt that they cared about them. Romney’s problem is his tone-deafness when it comes to ordinary people, and his disconnect from them.”
Romney supporters would argue that Shrum has his own political reasons for making that argument. But it is still notable that, when Romney’s campaign was in its earliest stages, there was near-universal agreement on the two areas where he supposedly faced the greatest challenges: healthcare, where the Massachusetts initiative he backed as governor contains provisions similar to Obama’s healthcare law, and social issues, where he had executed a series of U-turns.
Business expertise, by contrast, was to be the core, if not the entire raison d’être, of his campaign.
“I have been in the private sector” is Romney’s near-constant refrain on the stump, as he hopes to implant in voters’ minds the idea that he is best qualified to turn the economy around.
But if that statement becomes emblematic not of managerial skill but of callous disregard for the plight of working people — of vulture capitalism rather than venture capitalism, in Rick Perry’s already infamous phrase — Romney could have a major, even politically fatal, problem on his hands.
“Romney could have a hard time feeling voters’ pain,” said McKinnon. “And Team Obama will make sure voters feel Romney’s Bain.”
Some of Romney’s trouble is self-inflicted, to be sure. At times on the campaign trail, his behavior seems to invite a reprise of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards’s jab at George H.W. Bush: “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
The multimillionaire Romney last June told a group of unemployed Floridians, “I should tell my story: I’m also unemployed.” Earlier this month, he told voters in New Hampshire that there “were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.” And last month, he described his earnings from public speaking as “not very much” — only for the media to note that he had earned almost $375,000 during the 12 months ending in February 2011.