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First Thoughts: Running out the clock

Steve Nesius / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses supporters during a campaign rally at Con-Air Industries Inc., in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2012.

Romney and running out the clock… Dems begin to press the panic button… Greenberg’s and Carville’s advice… Dems win AZ-8 special election… After primaries in ME, NV, ND, and VA, Senate races finally take shape… Eric Holder, political punching bag… Jamie Dimon testifies on Capitol Hill… And Romney addresses Business Roundtable meeting at 11:45 am ET. 


*** Running out the clock: With less than five months until Election Day, Mitt Romney and his team are running a campaign that would make Dean Smith (and his Four Corners offense) or Jim Tressel (and his grind-it-out gameplan) proud. If you're ahead -- or within striking distance -- against a talented opponent, you start running out the clock. Take, for instance, Romney's reply yesterday to a reporter’s ropeline question about whether he thought Democrats were taking his recent remark firefighter and police jobs out of context. "I'm not going to talk about that," he said. (Romney also has ducked reporters’ ropeline questions on Syria, JP Morgan, and even Wisconsin.) Or consider all the interviews he does with FOX (especially its cherry-picked programs vs. its newsier anchors) compared with other news outlets. Or think about the fact that the Romney camp isn't planning (for now) on delivering any new policy speeches. The message Team Romney is essentially giving: “We're going to talk about what we want to talk about -- and to whom we want -- and not talk about the rest.” 

*** But does a president get to control what he talks about? It’s impressive message discipline. And as Smith and Tressel proved, you can win tons of games -- and the ultimate prize every once in a while (especially if your opponent makes mistakes) -- by running out the clock. But here’s something about sitting in the White House: A president often doesn’t get to pick and choose the issues he has to deal with. Think of many of the events in the past five years: the financial industry’s collapse, the European debt crisis, the BP oil spill, the Arab Spring, the violence in Libya and Syria, and the list goes on. While a president gets to pick his domestic priorities (tax cuts, education, and Social Security for George W. Bush; health care and financial reform for Barack Obama), so much of the job is reacting to unplanned events. Ironically, the very issue Romney wants to talk about -- the state of the U.S. economy -- is something that presidents have little control over, especially compared with foreign policy (which they have A LOT of control over). And yet how long can Romney go without going into more detail about how he would handle the various unplanned issues that he would have to deal with if he wins. Take Syria. We know he doesn’t like how the president has handled this situation but how would a President Romney deal with Putin and Assad? He’s provided no clues and his campaign appears to be making sure there’s little opportunity (for now) to find out.

NBC's Mark Murray discusses whether President Barack Obama's message on the economy is working.

*** Dems press the panic button: While Team Romney appears to be running out the clock and displaying an impressive ability at message discipline, the Obama White House and campaign are dealing with Democratic Party that’s beginning to panic after a rough last two weeks. “Is it time for Democrats to panic?” the Washington Post’s Tumulty asks. “That’s what a growing number of party loyalists are wondering, amid a rough couple of weeks in which President Obama and his political operation have been buffeted by bad economic news, their own gaffes and signs that the presumed Republican nominee is gaining strength.” One criticism from the Democrats cited in the piece is how insular Team Obama is, a criticism that has dogged the Obama political team beginning Feb. 10, 2007 (the day Obama announced). This story illustrates two of the Democratic Party’s and Obama White House’s worst traits -- pressing the panic button (especially when nothing fundamental about the race has changed in the past two weeks) and ignoring outside voices (which is a criticism we continually hear about the Obama team). Former Bush strategist Mark McKinnon puts it well in the piece: “[The Obama campaign folks] are not any more or less smart than they were four years ago. The dynamics are just different. This time, the wind is in their face instead of at their back.”

*** Greenberg’s and Carville’s advice: The Tumulty article also mentions the advice from Democrats Stan Greenberg and James Carville after conducting focus groups in Pennsylvania and Ohio: The Obama folks need to change their economic message. “We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class... It is elites who are creating a conventional wisdom that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance – and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction. They are wrong, and that will fail... overwhelmingly, these voters want to know that he understands the struggle of working families and has plans to make things better.“ This memo gets at the conundrum this White House faces, how to balance optimism and realism when it comes to messaging the economy. The fact of the matter is whichever candidate – Obama or Romney – offers hope for an improved economic future will win. It’s as simple as that. Romney doesn’t have to talk about anything positive with the economy today and can simply focus on post-Obama. But Obama has the challenge of both making the case his policies are working but at the same time, feeling the pain of the economically anxious middle class.

*** Dems win in AZ-8: But Democrats did get some good news out of Arizona last night. Ron Barber (D) beat Jesse Kelly (R) in the special election to fill the congressional seat vacated by Gabby Giffords (D). Make no mistake: Democrats needed that win after what’s been a rough couple of weeks, especially the loss last week in Wisconsin. And we should say this about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: They don’t lose many special elections, and won a race that wasn’t easy. That said, the NRCC kept it close despite the fact that in their heart of hearts, they know they had a VERY flawed candidate. It will be interesting to see if they are able to swap Kelly out for a more preferred nominee who has, um, less “edge” shall we say.

*** Senate races come into shape: Also last night, primary results formalized some of this fall’s most competitive Senate races. In Virginia, George Allen (R) won his primary and will face off against Tim Kaine (D) in the fall; in Nevada, Shelly Berkley won her primary, and she’ll compete against Sen. Dean Heller (R); and in North Dakota, Rep. Rick Berg (R) easily won his primary, and he’ll run against Heidi Heitkamp in November. And in Maine, Democrat Cynthia Dill and Republican Charles Summer won their respective Senate primaries, but the favorite in that race will be Angus King (I). Interestingly, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee made no mistake that King is their guy when it DIDN’T release a statement congratulating Dill’s primary win. By the way, it’s possible that Danny Tarkanian (who won his primary last night in Nevada) and Andre Bauer (who qualified for a run off in South Carolina) could be coming to Congress…

*** Eric Holder, political punching bag: Is there any doubt that Attorney General Eric Holder is going to go down as Barack Obama’s presidential punching bag? The New York Times on yesterday’s Hill hearing: “Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday strongly criticized the recent decision by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to appoint two United States attorneys to investigate recent disclosures of classified national security information, saying that the move was not enough and that he should appoint a special prosecutor.” The Republicans on the committee also used their time to beat them up on a pet issue of the NRA and the base: fast and furious, the bungled Mexican-gun operation that now has many Republicans jumping at the chance to embarrass the NRA’s most feared government agency, the ATF. Whether you believe the best or the worst of Holder, you have to give the guy his due on this front:  It’s amazing the political heat he’s had to absorb -- and that’s he’s survived so far. Many would have cracked by now…

*** Jamie Dimon’s day on the Hill: And speaking of punching bags, Democrats will get their crack when JP Morgan Chase head Jamie Dimon testifies before the Senate Banking Committee beginning at 10:00 am ET.

*** On the trail: Romney’s in DC, where he addresses the Business Roundtable’s quarterly meeting at 11:45 am ET, and then he heads to a fundraiser in Cincinnati, OH later in the day.

Countdown to GOP convention: 75 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 82 days
Countdown to Election Day: 146 days

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