By DANIEL HENNINGER –
“You know, I’m delighted to be able to take a vacation with my family. I think all Americans appreciate the memories they have with their children and their grandchildren.”
—Mitt Romney, July 6, 2012
Truer words were never spoken. Fourth of July, family, grandkids. That’s what it’s all about. So how did it come to pass that in this particular Fourth of July week, amid a presidential election, the memory Mitt Romney allowed to imprint itself on the American electorate was an Associated Press photo of himself looking absolutely fabulous on a fire-engine red jet ski driven by his fabulous-looking wife?
Surly news editors instantly likened it to failed presidential candidate John Kerry windsurfing off Nantucket Island. Political junkies by the thousands stepped away from backyard grills to send the jet-ski photo to their distribution lists: “Have you seen this??!!”
What the Romneys thought they were doing with this innocent spin around the lake is irrelevant. Mr. Romney happens to be the GOP’s candidate for the American presidency. That fellow in the jet-ski photo would be the same Mitt Romney described in political analysis the previous week as having taken on water with the public because of the Obama campaign’s attacks on him as a rich guy from Bain Capital.
It would be the same Mitt Romney whom Barack Obama plans to define from now till November as out of step with a middle-class America in which “so many folks are just trying to get by.”
And this would be the same Mitt Romney who had to interrupt his July 4 respite to personally address and disentangle the mess his campaign made over the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Obama health-care mandate.
Coming atop these events, the jet-ski photo was a little like the kid who celebrates the Fourth of July by lighting and dropping a cherry bomb at his own feet. This was the week that got people wondering if the Romney campaign needs a change of personnel.
Little noticed with the jet-ski photo making waves was an alternative photo of Mitt Romney taken by the AP’s paparazzi, one that put the candidate perfectly in sync with middle-class anxiety. It was a photo of an older, middle-aged guy in a bathing suit, schlumped in a plastic chair on a spit of beach, his wife beside him, surrounded by their grown children and a covey of grandkids playing in the sand.
This is a photo of an American at rest with his family. It is the man Mr. Romney no doubt wants the country to vote for. The guy in the jet-ski photo is the man they don’t want to vote for—not amid the current anxiety.
The Obama Democrats will smirk that up from that modest beach on Lake Winnipesaukee sits a grand and expensive house. Really? Would that be like the “Kennedy compound” of legend at Hyannis Port, FDR’s homes at Springwood and Campobello, or beloved Progressive candidate Teddy Roosevelt’s house at Sagamore Hill on Oyster Bay? Even in our day, Democrats also make money in the U.S. economy.
A question of some urgency hangs over these two photos. We may assume the family beach photo was the one intended to run through the July Fourth news cycle. If so, did anyone in the Romney campaign warn the candidate that the beach photo would evaporate the moment the couple on that jet ski entered a lake teeming with press-corps piranhas? Two possible conclusions flow from the answer.
If no one warned Mr. Romney of the Kerryesque lobster roast his ride would guarantee, then calls for a campaign upgrade are plausible.
But what if the campaign staff did warn Mr. Romney but were waved off by the candidate himself, confident in his own judgment? If that happened, then neither the second coming of Lee Atwater nor James Carville will save this candidate from blowing himself up eventually with another bad call, such as a Dukakis-like photo of the candidate riding in an Abrams tank in front of the press.
This is not the 1960s, when a photo of JFK on a sailing yacht might float past on three evening TV shows, briefly in newspapers, and then evaporate. On the Web, nothing dies. A bad picture, like poorly chosen words about Supreme Court decisions, becomes a monster, terrifying voters adrift on the electronic ocean.
Mr. Romney is right that he was entitled to a family vacation. But let’s put it this way. The man on that jet ski will be able to spend the next four years on vacation. The granddad on the beach just might spend four years with the grandchildren playing in the White House. If the candidate can’t see the difference between the two, he really does need someone along for the ride who can.