What summer is for: How August can matter, and how Romney might use it

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Mitt Romney returns to earth, or at least to the United States, later this week after an overseas tour designed to burnish his foreign-policy credentials and prepare him for the Republican National Convention next month and then a grueling general-election battle. Summer vacation's over, and it's back to work.

Presidential elections are seldom this close this far from Election Day, which is why the way Mitt Romney uses August is unusually important. There's much to do, and not a day to waste.

Mr. Romney's advisers in their Boston redoubt surely know the way another Massachusetts governor, 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis, whiled away his summer (and a 17-point lead Mr. Romney can only envy) as Vice President George H. W. Bush planned a brutal assault on his rival that won him the White House.

No presidential campaign is the same as any previous one. Mr. Romney can be thankful for that, for he gets to run against Barack Obama in 2012, when Mr. Obama seems inexplicable, and not in 2008, when he seemed indefatigable, irresistible and inevitable.

Yet there remain great lessons for the Romney team this August from the Dukakis experience in 1988.

There are substantial similarities between the two men. They both occupied the governor's office on the second floor of the State House on Beacon Hill, both hold Harvard degrees, both have a difficult time making emotional connections with voters, both have a record of government efficiency, both possess an appreciation for the art of business, and both are famous inside their families for manic expressions of personal thrift.

But Mr. Dukakis ran in a completely different era, before the 24-hour news cycle, before the Internet, before Twitter, before vitriolic public commentary on every website and cable TV network, before Super PACs.

Indeed, there was almost no measurable change in the way campaigns were run in the 24 years between Mr. Dukakis's campaign and the one Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. The changes between the Dukakis-Bush campaign and Obama-Romney 24 years later are so great they cannot be measured. Even so, Mr. Romney must avoid some of the missteps made by the Dukakis campaign, which (it is forgotten now) was a political juggernaut until summertime.

An underdog initially and vastly underestimated, Mr. Dukakis shrewdly won his nomination in a far tougher field than Mr. Romney confronted, including a future vice president and party nominee (Al Gore), a future House majority leader (Richard A. Gephardt) and a civil-rights leader who relentlessly challenged Mr. Dukakis's moral authority (Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.).

But after reaching a rapprochement with Mr. Jackson over clam chowder and poached salmon on July 4, Mr. Dukakis lost steam. He wasted the month of August, preoccupied with how state lottery revenues would be disbursed and visiting officials across Massachusetts. He permitted Mr. Bush to dominate the airwaves and the conversation. He swiftly found himself on defense, particularly on national-security issues.

Mr. Romney will avoid many of those errors simply by virtue of having no gubernatorial responsibilities and, in fact, no day job at all. Thus, he has none of the distractions that bedeviled Mr. Dukakis. The national zeitgeist is different enough that he cannot even contemplate being out of sight in August. Nature has always abhorred a vacuum. But the new physics created by social media renders the notion of a political vacuum impossible.

Mr. Dukakis didn't give the national-security speech his advisers contemplated. Traveling in Europe and the Middle East this week, Mr. Romney is addressing the issue. Mr. Dukakis didn't counter attacks (and even warned his staff he wouldn't tolerate negativism). Mr. Romney, battered throughout July and portrayed as a soulless master of private equity, is fighting back.

Mr. Romney possesses another advantage. Mr. Dukakis' convention concluded on July 21, and by that point he already had a running mate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. Mr. Romney's nomination won't be conferred officially until nearly six weeks later in the calendar, which means his selection of a running mate, and his convention bump, will come later -- though because the Democratic convention is only a few days after that, it may be smaller.

Both Mr. Dukakis and Mr. Romney are meticulous men, fascinated with and sometimes drowning in details, so there's little chance the 2012 nominee will rush the selection of a vice-presidential nominee like Sen. John McCain (2008) and Sen. George S. McGovern (1972) did.

Joshua M. Glasser's new book, "The 18-Day Running Mate," is a sober reminder of the perils of summer. It is a gripping examination of how Mr. McGovern chose Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate without knowing the senator had undergone electroshock therapy. Eagleton was soon abandoned.

The choice came in a frantic 23-hour period in which names were tossed about like Wiffle balls (Yale president Kingman Brewster? Rep. Wilbur Mills? CBS anchor Walter Cronkite?). As late as 2 that afternoon -- Mr. McGovern was required to submit a nominee by 4 -- the focus turned to Mayor Kevin H. White of Boston. At 3 p.m. Mr. McGovern threw out the name of Sen. Frank Church of Idaho. About 25 minutes before the deadline, Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin turned down an offer to join the ticket. Only a quarter-hour before the deadline, Mr. McGovern called Eagleton.

Some 38 seconds into the conversation between the two, McGovern aide Frank Mankiewicz picked up the telephone line and asked, "No skeletons rattling in your closet?" That was it. The vetting took one sentence and a one-word answer.

We know Mr. Romney will avoid that problem. But avoiding problems and using the next month profitably are two different things.

First he must answer some of the questions thrown his way -- about his wealth, his career and his policy proposals. Then he must ask some questions of his own of Mr. Obama. One of them might be: How, Mr. President, after more than three years of your policies and your admirable concern about those struggling economically, can it be possible that the poverty rate is at levels not seen since you were a child?

A nation awaits the question, and the answer.

davidshribman

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.


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