Read the rest of Slate’s coverage from the GOP convention.
The Mitt Romney campaign had two things to convey about the candidate at the Republican convention: his steadfast likability as a human being, and his hyper-competence as an executive. Whatever progress they made on either front was gone by Friday afternoon, as aides tried to spin away the halting, awkward endorsement-cum-comedy sketch Clint Eastwood had delivered on Romney's behalf.
The campaign had expected "a more standard endorsement," the New York Times reported, citing two anonymous aides. “Aides said Mr. Eastwood does not like teleprompters and was trusted to deliver an on-message endorsement,” the story continued. This was not the campaign’s fault, no sir.
“Not me,” said an exasperated-looking senior adviser, when asked who was responsible for Mr. Eastwood’s speech.
Responding to media pressure by shooting your ally in the back is a time-honored political strategy, as President Obama and Shirley Sherrod can testify. But Romney and his staff have a quick trigger finger.
Back in December, when the Times reported on the contrast between Romney's often-cheap spending habits and the accumulated trappings of his fortune, the target was Ann Romney. Mitt cared not for material things, personally, but you know how women are:
Those close to Mr. Romney say he typically defers to his wife on large purchases—especially homes, most of which are in her name.
In July—again, distancing himself from his own lifestyle—Romney sold out his wife, the Olympics, and the family dressage horse, Rafalca, all at once:
"I have to tell you, this is Ann’s sport,” he said. “I’m not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it, I will not be watching the event.”
And now we have the Man With No Name being ridden out of Tampa on Rafalca's back, as the Romney campaign trashes its celebrity guest speaker to protect itself.
This is not the best way to demonstrate that your candidate is something other than a ruthless human weathervane (that is, a successful business consultant). But the Clint Eastwood debacle undermines the other half of Romney's message even more. In disavowing Eastwood's performance, the campaign is pleading total incompetence.
Eastwood's remarks, aides reportedly told the Times, were not rehearsed. That whole business of haranguing an invisible Obama, represented by an empty chair?
Initially, there were no plans for Mr. Eastwood to take a chair onstage as a prop. But at the last minute, the actor asked the production staff backstage if he could use one, but did not explain why. “The prop person probably thought he was going to sit in it,” a senior aide said.
Again, this is the campaign's defense: In advance of the candidate's biggest public speech to date, at the climax of a tightly orchestrated multiple-day political performance, Team Romney sent an actor out to wing it on national television.
They screwed up the un-screwuppable. This was like having one of the featured guests at the State of the Union drop his trousers on camera. If you botch that, how are you going to execute the more complicated constitutional duties? Mitt Romney can't handle Clint Eastwood trying to do him a favor, and he wants to take on unfriendly negotiations with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin?
And the Eastwood appearance was a miscalculation long before any furniture got dragged out onstage. The campaign had hyped it as a special secret appearance, causing waves of speculation about what political coup Romney might have in the works. Was he going to bring out Gen. David Petraeus to endorse him? The SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden? He might redefine his whole candidacy in one memorable moment.
And then ... they dragged out an actor. A known Republican. Imagine the Obama campaign staging the same windup, only to bring out Robert De Niro. It would be humiliating.
Even if you don't like Romney or support his politics, you're supposed to acknowledge that he knows what he's doing. He could have acted like he knew what he was doing. "I liked the speech," he could have said. "I thank Clint for giving it." Instead, we get a panicky and mean-spirited organizational freakout, with anonymous staff trying to deflect responsibility.
Regardless of whether or not you believe corporations are people, the president of the United States is a corporate entity—a staff, acting together on behalf of the orders and principles from the top. And based on this 24 hours, Mitt Romney, Inc., is a bungling, blame-shifting mess.