Mitt Romney's performance in last Thursday's GOP debate in Jacksonville was widely praised for his assertiveness against Newt Gingrich and it may have effectively neutralized the former House Speaker's victory five days earlier in South Carolina. If Romney earns a decisive victory in Florida, it could prove to be the turning point in winning the Republican nomination. But his debate performance should have instead raised a big red flag.
Romney hoisted and waved the red flag early in the debate during a discussion about illegal immigration. When debate moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Romney about an ad his campaign was running which asserted that Newt Gingrich had called Spanish the language of the ghetto, Romney said, "I haven't seen the ads. I'm sorry. I don't get to see all the TV ads." Romney then turned to Gingrich and asked him if he had said that Spanish was the language of the ghetto. Gingrich denied singling out Spanish and emphasized the importance of learning English. To which Romney replied, "I doubt that's my ad but we'll take a look and find out." Blitzer said he would do just that.
A few minutes later, Blitzer informed Romney that it was one indeed of his ads and that it was running on radio stations in Florida with the tag line, "I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message." The audience responded by jeering Romney. But Romney cleverly put the issue back on Gingrich and again asked him if he had said Spanish was the language of the ghetto. Instead of asking Romney if he had listened to what he said two minutes earlier, Gingrich again denied he had singled out Spanish in that manner. What he should have done was said something along the lines of, "If Mitt Romney doesn't know what's going on in his own campaign, how can we expect him to know what's going on in the White House?"
Unfortunately, Newt didn't ask the question and it may have cost him the Republican nomination. Nevertheless, it is question worth asking and it isn't too late to ask.
To start with, Romney made a point of saying, "I haven't seen all the ads. I don't get to see all the ads." Well, why doesn't he get to see all the ads? How many new ads does the Romney campaign release in a day? One? Two? Five? Ten? Does he simply not have time to see his ads? If that's the case, is Romney telling us he can't spare thirty seconds during the day to preview an advertisement that is not only going out in his name but explicitly says, "I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message"? Well, how can Mitt Romney approve a message he hasn't seen nor heard?
Then there's the issue with Romney saying, "I doubt that's my ad." At the very least it suggests that he either doesn't know or doesn't care about the content of his ads. It might be useful for Romney to vet his ads in case he comes across something that isn't to his liking and can send his team back to the drawing board. At worst, Romney knows damn well it's his ad and he's just being dishonest about it. Either way, Romney might be able to get away with feigning ignorance against Newt but chances are he won't be able to get away with it against President Obama.
But let's suppose that Romney does get away with it and he defeats Obama this November. If Romney is sworn into office next year, I have a very bad feeling that we could spend a great deal of his presidency writing articles asking, "What did Romney know and when did he know it?"
Now I understand the need for a chief executive to delegate authority whether that chief executive is in charge of running a company, a charity or a country. You don't want a micromanager like Jimmy Carter who early in his presidency personally reviewed requests to play on the White House tennis court. But there are also limits to delegation, as Ronald Reagan found out during the Iran-Contra scandal. There has to be a healthy balance between trusting your subordinates to carry out their duties and knowing what your subordinates are doing in your name and, more importantly, in the name of our country.
Mitt Romney says we should elect him President because of his experience in the private sector. But I have to wonder if he's minding the store.
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