It's tough to run for president against an incumbent, even when the economy is in rough shape.
Your problem is that while you're out on the campaign trail promising voters what you will do as President months and months down the line to solve problems affecting their lives at the moment, your opponent is back at work in the White House busy solving those problems right now.
You may have good reasons to think he's not in fact solving them or not solving them as well as you would, but it's tricky to say that. You don't want to sound like you’re rooting for the President to fail.
Which---be honest with yourself---at some deep, ugly, ignoble level you are.
You can't help it. Your success depends on his failure or at least on his being perceived to be failing.
One of the smart things Bill Clinton did when he ran against George Herbert Walker Bush was to make the future the focus of the campaign. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow. Building a bridge to the the 21st Century. Grow the economy. A clunking phrase but an optimistic one. Growth is all about looking forward. Clinton wasn't asking voters to judge Bush on what he had done. What he had done yesterday wouldn't matter tomorrow, yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone. Bush began to look like yesterday's President. Voters couldn’t help noticing that he was an old man of 66 and Clinton was 20 years younger. It helped Clinton that Bush in himself and in his achievements embodied an era that had ended on his watch.
Clinton was able to praise the President for what he had done, thank him for his service to the nation, and make the case that it was time for him to step aside. He put Bush in the position of having to argue that the past mattered more than the future, a tough sell Bush himself didn't appear to buy.
Back in 1972, George McGovern's whole campaign was pretty much predicated on his promise to end the war in Vietnam. But then Nixon did that. Then he negotiated detente with the Soviet Union and opened up China. There were good reasons why he shouldn't have been reelected but replacing him with a peace candidate no longer seemed that urgent. McGovern became the candidate from the past, running as if it was still 1968.
Mitt Romney has McGovern's problem. I'm not predicting he's as doomed to as resounding a defeat. But his campaign has been based---had been based---on one salient idea, that Barack Obama had failed to fix the economy.
What Mitt failed at was asking himself what he would do if what he was telling voters was the one big problem got fixed.
Of course he didn't think it would get fixed. He and the folks at Mitt Corp were convinced it couldn't be fixed by this President. It could only be made worse. In fact they were banking on it to get worse.
Their Republican allies in Congress were working to make it worse.
Mitt was helped along in this line of thinking by the Village Press Corps which had itself convinced that President Obama couldn’t get re-elected unless the economy showed clear signs it was recovering and then constructed a definition of recovering that was pretty much recovered. Things wouldn't be better until the economy was booming again or at least restored to where it was in August of 2008.
But Mitt appears not to have asked himself the bigger question. What would he do while the President was busy being the President? Presidents have to do more than watch the nation’s bottom line. Suppose a crisis came along? Suppose the eyes of the nation the eyes of the whole world were turned on the president of the United States? Suppose for days or even weeks on end nobody cares what you think or even remembers you exist?
If you've asked yourself this question, the correct answer is you be a good citizen, support the President, wait for the crisis to pass, then point out the mistakes or the things you feel he should have done differently. But while you are waiting you don't have to stand there like a block of wood. You practice being President. You practice looking like a President. You practice sounding and acting like a President. Because if people do take their eyes of the actual President to look at you it will be to ask themselves what it would be like during a crisis to see you up there dealing with it.
But besides this requiring patience, tact, self-discipline, and a degree of humility, it requires you to have asked yourself the existential question, What will I be when I am President?
If the answer comes back, Boss of the World, give it up right there.
The question breaks down into a lot of smaller questions. What do you plan to do when you’re President? How will you get it done? Who will you have to work with? How will you get them to go along with you? What if they don’t? What if you can’t get done what you want to get done or all you want to get done? What if there’s a crisis? How would you handle this disaster, that sudden problem, the rise of those enemies, the loss of those allies? How will you rally people to your side? What is your side? Your party’s or your country’s or the world’s? How do you want people to see you as President? What do you want history to say about you?
Why do you want to be President anyway?
Mitt’s thoughtless, reckless, selfish behavior over the last few days suggest that he’s never asked himself any of these questions.
He didn’t wait. He couldn’t wait. He couldn’t use the time to practice being President. All he could do, all he could think to do, was promote himself at the expense of the nation’s interest.
Which is not what we look for Presidents to do.
What it appears to come down to is that Mitt has no idea what it means to be President. He seems to think it’s a straight-forward managerial position, no different than running Bain or the Olympics (“Governor of Massachusetts? When was I ever governor of Massachusetts?”) and that the only qualification Mitt needs for the job or any job is that he be Mitt.
Not. A. President.
Updated already: Mike the Mad Biologist on the intellectual bubble in which Mitt Corp operates, How ‘Epistemic Closure’ Led to Romney’s Gaffe.
Updated again after careful reflection: John Scalzi explains to Mitt why You Never Go Full McCain.
Photo of George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, and Bill Clinton at one of their debates during the 1992 Presidential campaign courtesy of the BBC.