I've seen plenty of presidential candidates go off message at inopportune times, but it's rare to see a White House hopeful deliberately throw his message out the window just as the general election is heating up.
For over a year, Mitt Romney had a very specific focus: jobs and the economy. There were clearly legitimate questions about whether he had any credibility on the subject, and whether his agenda would make matters worse, but he was a disciplined candidate who remained focused on his principal goal.
And while this made sense -- polls show Americans care more about jobs and the economy than anything else -- the Republican shifted gears two weeks ago, moving his focus to "values" issues like welfare and contraception. Then Romney changed his message again, talking up Medicare.
As of yesterday, Romney has been reduced to arguing that the campaign is about ... the campaign.
Campaigning in Ohio, Romney pushed the rhetorical envelope even further, saying President Obama and his team have "disgraced the presidency." He added that Obama is "angry and desperate," concluding, "Take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America."
The Obama campaign's Ben LaBolt said Romney seemed "unhinged," and there's some truth to that. But keep in mind, Romney wasn't just flying off the handle in an overly-emotional tirade; he was reading the words written for him and placed on his trusted teleprompter. This was, in other words, unhinged and planned.
So, instead of talking about unemployment and the fragile economic recovery, the Romney campaign is focused on talking about the campaign. Nothing persuades struggling voters more than listening to politicians talk endlessly about campaign tactics and strategy, right?
Of course, there's another important angle to this: the substance of Romney's criticisms are also absurd, and if he's looking for an "angry and desperate" candidate, he's better off looking in the mirror.
There's been a concerted Republican effort over the last week or so to suggest President Obama is pushing the 2012 race in an ugly direction. That's ridiculous.
As we discussed last week, Mitt Romney has spent the last several months arguing that President Obama is a corrupt liar, who hates free enterprise and religion, and who's driven by an ideology that's "foreign to the American experience." One of Romney's chief surrogates has said the president should "learn how to be an American," and "has no idea how the American system functions," in part because "he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something."
And then Romney complains about Obama making "personal attacks."
Look, this is just crazy. Romney has disgraced himself with nearly-uncontrollable lying, so he's accusing Obama of being a disgrace. Romney is lashing out angrily, so he's accusing Obama of being angry. Romney will do anything to win, so he's accusing Obama of being willing to do anything to win. Romney is running a sleazy, substance-less, integrity-free campaign, so he's accusing Obama of taking the campaign into the gutter.
To be sure, I'm not suggesting Obama is pure as the driven snow, but there's hardly anything the president's re-election team has done that pushes the boundaries of decency. There's been plenty of spin and borderline shots from the Democratic campaign, but nothing that warrants Republicans and reporters to reach for the fainting couch.
Ultimately, I have to wonder whether Romney thinks he's helping himself with this garbage. Does he think voters want to hear less about jobs and more about Romney's perception of Obama being a big meanie?