The Obama trap: Romney discovers what Hillary and McCain already know

Mitt Romney. (mittromney.com)
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Blake Zeff

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Mitt Romney isn't going to get far blaming the media after his blundering response that mischaracterized events in Benghazi and Cairo. He screwed up, and the damage to his reputation as a foreign-policy grown-up is done.

His defenders aren't wrong about one thing, though: Running against Barack Obama is hard, and the media doesn't make it any easier.

More than most politicians we’ve seen on the national stage in recent years, Obama comes across as likeable. He doesn’t often misspeak. And while most accusations of systematic left-wing media bias in his favor are about as well-considered as they sound, the mainstream press is certainly not out to get him, either.

That's a generalization, of course. And, in general, it happens to be true.

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The thing is, Obama has the ability to run smart and aggressive campaigns without looking like a hatchet man. "Negative campaigner" is simply not part of the default Obama narrative, even, at times, when he campaigns negatively.

Running against him, under these circumstances, can get disorienting.

Obama faced two very high-profile opponents in his first presidential campaign: Hillary Clinton and John McCain. They both became so vexed by their inability to puncture his positive image that they lost control of their campaigns against him.

Frustrated with their inability to win a single news cycle, their strategy ultimately devolved into a simple determination to score points wherever possible, even when it put them at odds with their original strategy. With Hillary Clinton, a campaign based on superior experience turned to accusations of plagiarism and flip-flopping. In the case of John McCain, a campaign based on patriotism and straight talk came to revolve around a random encounter Obama had with a plumber about taxes (and, in the ultimate demonstration of their anything-to-break-through mentality, Sarah Palin). 

And now look at Romney, who set out in the general to focus voters' attention, with relentless intensity, on the lackluster economy. As a result of losing news cycle after news cycle, he's now throwing spaghetti, rigatoni, and fettucine against the wall, and hoping something will stick.

If there’s a teachers' strike in Obama’s hometown, it's time to pounce. If the Democrats at Obama’s convention fail to include “God” in their platform, it's time to pounce. And if an ambassador gets murdered in Libya on Obama’s watch … you get the idea. Romney is all over the place, and the economy-first strategy is on the scrap heap.

In the moment, the events in Libya must have seemed no different to Romney and his advisers than poor jobs numbers or “You didn’t build that;” they represented an unmissable chance to trip Obama up and win a news cycle.

Apparently they were in too much of a hurry, and their vision too clouded by exasperation, to consider either how their opportunistic criticism of the president might have looked to the public in those particular circumstances, or what a field day the media, without any necessary prompting by the Obama campaign, was going to have with it.

We've seen this movie before, in 2008. And Mitt Romney doesn't seem to know how to change the ending.

Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.