Gordon Campbell on the relevance to Labour of Mitt Romney’s troubles

One shouldn’t take pleasure in the misfortune of others, but one can always make an exception for Mitt Romney. Romney is now trying to defend his latest disastrous utterances as an accurate – but inelegant – critique of dependency on the government, but that argument doesn’t stack up for several reasons. Firstly, Romney’s key 47% figure is wrong. As this analysis shows, Romney has conflated Obama’s approval rating, the percentage of people who do not pay income taxes and the people who rely on government assistance. There’s another telling attack on Romney’s methodology here.

Secondly and as a consequence, many of the 47% Romney was dissing as spongers and victims are actually in the paid workforce, and the reason they don’t pay income tax is because of entirely valid payroll deductions for Social Security and Medicare. Or, they get tax credits for children or for being among the working poor, and thus recipients of policies that are favoured by Republicans in lieu of wage hikes. That’s even before you get to sales taxes…

Thirdly, Romney was roundly dissing his own supporters. Many of the people who not do not pay income tax are the elderly, who tend to vote Republican after spending most of their lives not as spongers or victims, but as hard working members of the paid work force. Also, eight of the ten states with the highest income tax liability are solidly Republican-voting “red” states, and one of the others is the crucial swing state of Florida that Romney almost certainly needs to win the White House. Conversely those states where income tax compliance is highest tend to vote Democrat. In other words, reality is almost the exact inverse of what Romney was claiming. Finally, as Obama advisers have already pointed out, Romney is applying for a job that requires him to govern for all Americans, so writing off half the population is a rather poor tactic. Watching a billionaire sneer at people who allegedly expect food and housing as “an entitlement” is also not such an endearing look, either.

Any local parallels however, tend to run in favour of the National Party, not Labour. Romney’s serial idiocies aside, his campaign usefully demonstrates just how difficult it is to run an election campaign based primarily upon the downsides of incumbency. Try as Romney has done to make this year’s election into a verdict on the current inhabitant of the White House, he has been patently unable to run simply as the anti-Obama. Labour is likely to face similar problems here in 2014. Part of the decision to choose David Shearer as Labour leader after all, was that he was not a smoothie like John Key – and there was a related expectation that the weight of incumbency and harder edged government policies (on welfare reform asset sales and industrial relations) would turn those anti-Key qualities into electoral gold. Well, it hasn’t started to happen yet.

Other parallels: Romney has also tried to make this election campaign into a verdict on the state of the domestic economy. Jobs, jobs, jobs was supposed to be the focus. Again, thanks to a combination of external events and his own stupidity, foreign policy has now come to the fore and blurred the focus that Romney needed to maintain. In a final parallel, there have always been deep misgivings within the Republican Party about Romney’s suitability for the nomination. It is very hard to get momentum when even the people in your own party wonder whether you’re up to the job. Ask David Shearer.

Obviously, there are limits to this comparison. Nothing in what Shearer has said or done comes close to the moronic utterances of the Mittster. But then again, the only thing keeping Romney in the race at all is the extent of genuine resentment and disappointment about Barack Obama. Shearer by contrast, is running against someone who – relative to the situation in the US – remains quite popular. Inexplicably so, but there you go. That’s Labour’s problem. You can’t run a campaign based on the weight of incumbency if the electorate, on balance, doesn’t much dislike the incumbent. On the whole, voters may not like him as much as they once did, but they don’t (yet) actively dislike John Key in the way that many Americans viscerally dislike Barack Obama.

Yes, yes…governments tend to lose elections rather than opposition parties go out and win them. But at some point, the alternative has to look credible. For some months now, Romney has not looked like a credible alternative. Yet if I were a National Party strategist, I would be looking at Mitt Romney and rubbing my hands at the prospect of a year long campaign in 2014 based on the theme – is David Shearer ready for prime-time?

Footnote: I can’t add much to the overseas commentary you might already have seen about the Romney campaign, beyond tabulating it with grisly fascination. For starters, there was Romney’s bungled foreign policy trip a few months ago where he insulted the British and their Olympics preparations, made racist comparisons between Israelis and the Palestinians. Romney then compared the US health system unfavourably to Israel’s universalist healthcare system, even while he railed against the universalist elements in Obamacare back home which, in a final twist, closely resembles the health care system he promoted whilst Governor of Massachusetts. Not to be outdone, his running mate Paul Ryan gave a Republican Convention speech peppered with easily provable lies before going on to tell further lies about his marathon running skills and further lies even, about the extent of his own ratio of body fat. Then came the bizarre sight of Clint Eastwood channeling Neil Diamond (“To no one there/not even the chair”) at the Republican Convention.

All of that has been merely the curtain raiser to the last fortnight of disasters. First, Romney tried to score cheap political points against US President Obama over Muslim protests in Egypt and similar demonstrations in Benghazi, Libya that claimed the lives of the US Ambassador and several of his staff. This piece of rank opportunism could have been put down to bad timing and time zone differences if Romney hadn’t then gone out and repeated the same stupid, self damaging comments a few hours later. Even Republican stalwarts such as Peggy Noonan expressed their dismay and told him that, in effect, he’d have done better to have kept his mouth shut entirely.

Then this week came a long and remorselessly detailed story on Politico about the disarray and mutual back stabbing now rife within the Romney campaign HQ, topped off yesterday by Romney’s absolutely astonishing piece of self destruction, leaked to Mother Jones magazine from a Romney fund raiser earlier this year. Here’s the full video of Romney’s fundraiser speech, that contains the income tax segment. It is a fascinating speech. As others have noted, this is how the elites talk to each other when they think no-one else is in the room.