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Michael Gerson: Romney playing defense

Published: October 3, 2012

So: The second quarter's growth rates were revised downward sharply, raising the prospect that President's 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 dis-missed the attack for days as “spontaneous” when some at the White House must have known that this was a falsehood. And al-Qaida 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. 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. 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.

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