It's time for the Romney campaign to try a new strategy.
The candidate needs to stop talking.
Talking includes "issuing statements" and "approving this message." Talking includes making faces that could be interpreted as expressing an opinion. This extends to talking at fund-raisers and talking in private and reading books to your grandchildren. This includes making remarks that you thought were off the record. There is no longer any such thing as off the record. You are a candidate for public office. If it were possible, your thoughts and your eerie clown-dreams and the rare occasions when you lusted in your heart would be on the record. If you ever open your mouth, you must assume that everyone who disagrees with you is listening. So avoid the problem altogether. Don't open your mouth.
This will create a few problems, sure, but it will solve more. Yes, the debates will be a little awkward, as President Barack Obama speaks candidly and at length on a variety of subjects, and Mitt Romney just stands there silently looking presidential and occasionally making a hand gesture of polite disagreement. But it cannot possibly be worse than the present state of affairs.
Call it the Ariel strategy. If a red-haired former mermaid with unusual body proportions and a tendency to use forks as a hair accessory can win a prince's love without ever opening her mouth, then certainly Mr. Romney can manage to woo the American electorate. And the other approach is definitely not working. Substantive debate, shmubstantive debate.
Conventional wisdom going into this election stated that a vaguely human-looking block of wood, if it managed to obtain the Republican nomination, would be able to win. Why not? Presidents, conventional wisdom continued, warming to its subject, simply don't get reelected in economies like this.
That just shows what conventional wisdom knows.
Last week, Mr. Romney inserted his foot into his mouth on the subject of Libya and refused to remove it, even when asked nicely by the media. Instead, he doubled down. "Mmm," he muttered, dimly. "Good foot. Great. Meant to eat it."
This week, Mother Jones released some video from May of Mr. Romney speaking off the record at a private fund-raiser.
This is the sort of remark that used to be off limits. It happened in May, at a private fund-raising dinner. Mr. Romney was speaking candidly, off the cuff.
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.
"And, I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49-and-a-half percent, he starts with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. So he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that's what they sell every four years.
"And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon, in some cases, emotion, whether they like the guy or not ... "
Cue the stampeding of the Internet.
We just can't make up our mind! He is too stiff and scripted, we say. We need to see the Real Mitt Romney. Then we get footage of this and suddenly everyone is complaining that his demeanor is too reminiscent of Louis XIV, and next he'll be forcing us to tote charcoal everywhere and dwell in stick huts.
This is just another iteration of my first law of talking, which is that anyone given a microphone and sufficient time will make a career-ending gaffe. This may not be the end for Mr. Romney. But if not, that's why he needs to stop talking now.
But this also reveals a new law of campaigning. There is no in-private, off-the-record, sunbathing-away-from-the-paparazzi. Most of us are discouraged from making fools of ourselves in public. Candidates cannot make fools of themselves in private, either. If you are a public figure, like, say, the Duchess of Cambridge, try to avoid nudity ever under any circumstances. Shower fully dressed. If you are a candidate, say only things that everyone agrees with, no matter whom you're addressing.
It turns out that the reason the generic, non-Obama block of wood would have done so well was that it would not have opened its mouth. That, it turns out, was part of the deal. It certainly would not say the things Mr. Romney says, implying that just under half of the American people are shiftless freeloaders whose votes are predetermined by income bracket.
Let alone the fact that most of these 47 percent of people pay state and local taxes, the mere fact that you do not pay federal income taxes in no way guarantees that you will vote for Mr. Obama.
At least not until you've seen this video.
Shut up, Mitt.
Alexandra Petri is a columnist for The Washington Post.