National Voices

Tuesday, Oct 02 2012 11:00 PM

MICHAEL GERSON: Romney forced to play defense in Wednesday's debate

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    Michael Gerson

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So: The second quarter's growth rates were revised downward sharply, raising the prospect that President Obama's fourth year in office may be economically weaker than his third. And the dismal unemployment figures would actually be much worse if it weren't for discouraged Americans leaving the workforce entirely. And the Middle East and North Africa are on fire, resulting in the first American ambassador killed in 30 years, along with three others. And security at the Benghazi consulate, it turns out, was lax. And administration officials dismissed the attack for days as "spontaneous" when some at the White House must have known that this was a falsehood. And al-Qaida -- from Libya to Somalia to Mali to Yemen to Nigeria -- seems intent on proving it is not quite dead, with little administration public recognition or response. And Univision reports that more guns linked to the Obama administration's Fast and Furious scandal went to drug cartels and hit men. And at a Univision forum, Obama tried to shift blame for the scandal with a claim that was immediately proved false.

And yet, entering the first presidential debate, it is Mitt Romney who is on the defensive.

The past few weeks have been tough on Obama. But he has lengthened his lead in the horse race. How to explain it? Republicans diagnose a severe case of media bias, and the symptoms are not imaginary. Obama's Middle East policy collapses -- and mainstream media outlets focus on an ill-timed Romney press statement. The president dismisses chaos and murder in the region as "bumps in the road," and the media collectively shrug. Made by a Republican, this remark would be cited as evidence of impeachable insensitivity. The obsession with Romney's errors -- the panting eagerness and lack of proportion -- is obvious and embarrassing.

But since the media are neither omnipotent nor monolithic, their attitudes can't be the only explanation for the state of the race. Romney and his campaign have cooperated. The dissing of the 47 percent seems one of those rare gaffes that actually registered with the public by confirming existing suspicions. Just as Obama's modest convention bounce should have been fading, the controversy seems to have extended and even slightly increased it.

And the Romney campaign's initial reaction to the video was incomprehensible. The challenger could have given a serious speech outlining his approach to governing -- something he has not really done since the Republican primaries. He could have detailed his view of where government is necessary and where it has overreached. He could have made the case that unreformed entitlements threaten to consume every other purpose of government and eventually require a massive, destructive transfer of national wealth from young to old.

Instead, the Romney campaign attacked a 14-year-old video in which Obama recommends "redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody's got a shot." Redistribution, explained Romney, "has never been a characteristic of America." So does Romney actually oppose a progressive tax system, entitlements and benefits for the poor? No, his budget approach sets out to maintain the current level of redistribution rather than increasing it as Obama would do. (Romney has pledged that he "will not have the top income earners in this country pay a smaller share of the tax burden" and that he would increase means testing for Medicare and Social Security.)

The Romney campaign, amazingly, reacted to the 47 percent gaffe with a round of anti-government hyperbole -- reinforcing the charge of insufficient compassion the Obama campaign was pressing at the time. When one is caught sounding too much like Marie Antoinette, the natural response is not to sound more like Barry Goldwater or Ron Paul. This is damage control with a wrecking ball.

What does this mean for the debate? Romney will have the opportunity to criticize the obvious faults and failures that led this column. Yet now his performance bears some additional burden. First, he must find a way to convince an economically struggling middle-age female voter in Akron, Ohio, that he is concerned in practical ways about her future. Second, and relatedly, he must outline a philosophy of government that isn't libertarian and frightening. Attacks on redistribution and a theoretical defense of economic freedom will not suffice.

The problem is: Both these goals are defensive and should have been accomplished months ago. Romney can still make his case -- finally unfiltered by the media -- but he has complicated his own task.

Email Michael Gerson of The Washington Post at michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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