Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
Mitt Romney is in no danger of losing Utah to President Barack Obama. But this has to hurt: on Friday the Salt Lake Tribune endorsed Obama over the quasi-adopted son of the Beehive State. The editorial starts off fine for Romney:
Nowhere has Mitt Romney’s pursuit of the presidency been more warmly welcomed or closely followed than here in Utah. The Republican nominee’s political and religious pedigrees, his adeptly bipartisan governorship of a Democratic state, and his head for business and the bottom line all inspire admiration and hope in our largely Mormon, Republican, business-friendly state.
But it was Romney’s singular role in rescuing Utah’s organization of the 2002 Olympics from a cesspool of scandal, and his oversight of the most successful Winter Games on record, that make him the Beehive State’s favorite adopted son.
Then the Tribune slams him as an opportunistic and untrustworthy shape-shifter:
From his embrace of the party’s radical right wing, to subsequent portrayals of himself as a moderate champion of the middle class, Romney has raised the most frequently asked question of the campaign: "Who is this guy, really, and what in the world does he truly believe?"
The evidence suggests no clear answer, or at least one that would survive Romney’s next speech or sound bite. Politicians routinely tailor their words to suit an audience. Romney, though, is shameless, lavishing vastly diverse audiences with words, any words, they would trade their votes to hear.
It gets worse. The paper ridicules his refusal to provide specifics for his tax plan. And it ends with Romney's 47-percent rant:
If this portrait of a Romney willing to say anything to get elected seems harsh, we need only revisit his branding of 47 percent of Americans as freeloaders who pay no taxes, yet feel victimized and entitled to government assistance. His job, he told a group of wealthy donors, "is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Where, we ask, is the pragmatic, inclusive Romney, the Massachusetts governor who left the state with a model health care plan in place, the Romney who led Utah to Olympic glory? That Romney skedaddled and is nowhere to be found.
They say you're never a hero in your own hometown. But here's a case in which Romney is pummeled by those who know him well and who yearn for the Romney they once saw. That Romney is long gone.
Here's a thought experiment: Imagine where the presidential race would be if the Barack Obama of Debate Two had appeared at Debate One.
Obama entered the second of three rounds with many tasks to accomplish. He had to display vim and vigor—at least look as if he wants to be president and fight for that privilege. He had to offer a passionate defense—or explanation—of his presidency to date, outlining his accomplishments in what-it-means-for-you terms. He had to convince voters he has a strong idea of what he will do in the next four years to build on the improvements of the past four. He had to cast the election as a stark choice between this vision and Mitt Romney's back-to-Bush intentions. And he had to call out the say-anything Romney on several fronts: being out of step (or touch) with the priorities and needs of middle- and working-class Americans, and refusing to own his policies and positions.
Romney had a much simpler task: repeat his charge that Obama has not done enough to bolster the economy and proclaim "I can do better." Romney demonstrated in the first debate that he would not be burdened by any of his inconvenient or mathematically challenged stances. He could toss them aside, just like dumping a bad stock.
As I've noted before, this was always the fundamental dynamic of the race. Obama would have to explain (his record, his agenda, and his opponent), and Romney would merely have to stick to his mantra: This fellow had his shot, he came up short, and I'm the white knight riding to your rescue. Romney has had the easier path, and if recent polls are any indication, Romney, after months of cloddish campaigning and weeks of 47 percent troubles, finally succeeded in selling this proposition—hire me to be the CEO of the United States—at the first debate, especially to white women voters. His PowerPoint came home.
On Tuesday night, at the town-hall-style debate at Hofstra University, a fierce and passionate Obama put a dent in that presentation. He challenged Romney repeatedly: on Romney's tax plan (whatever it may be), on Romney's crass effort to politicize the attack on US diplomats in Libya, on Romney's past investments in firms outsourcing in China. In one early exchange, Obama rolled Romney's opposition to the auto bailout, his record at Bain Capital, and his proposed tax cuts for the wealthy into one answer—merging Romney's various liabilities into a single, integrated assault. Four times Obama said to Romney, "That's not true." In one critical exchange, moderator Candy Crowley felt compelled to back up the president, when Obama challenged Romney's assertion that it took him a fortnight to declare the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism. The president had labeled it as such the day afterward.
Peter Hart, one of the sharpest Democratic pollsters out there, has put out a four-page memo on the state of the 2012 presidential campaign based on focus groups his firm conducted in Ohio—the most important of the swing states. He notes, "President Obama's debate performance did two things: it left these voters both stunned and mystified, and it has caused them to give Romney a second look." But Romney, he notes, hasn't completed the sale: "On the economic front, Romney may have the credentials, but he has yet to translate them into something these voters can grasp firmly. They know he has held the position and done the deals, but there are no specifics. People could talk about past candidates' specifics: McCain was a POW; Bush 43 had a legislative record of working with Democrats. There are no specifics for Romney—just a title."
This is not surprising stuff, but in this memo (reported by NBC News' First Read tip sheet) Hart did derive a characterization of Romney that seems dead-on:
The bottom line for Romney is that when voters are asked what relative he would be in their family, he ends up as the "step dad": no blood kin, but someone who accepts you only because he has to. He has never been able to close that emotional linkage with the voters. The question ahead of him is whether he can gain the respect and success labels that would give voters a reason to support him.
So is this the question for tonight's town hall debate and the rest of the campaign: can Romney demonstrate that he really does care about you? (And, yes, we mean you suburban, white women voters whom the pundits are fixated on.) This is, of course, where his 47-percent rant comes in. Can Romney convince the "kids" who overheard him say they are lazy no-goodniks that he really didn't mean it and that he truly does care for them? That may be one of the fundamental dynamics of the moment. Perhaps Romney should promise them a pony.
Oh, wait, he already did that in the first debate.
In 2009, Mitt Romney, who is now trying to campaign for president as a moderate, lent his star power to an unusual charitable project: celebrating right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck to raise money for an unaccredited Utah-based college, which was founded by acolytes of the late W. Cleon Skousen and promoted the work of this fringe conservative figure. Much-touted by Beck, Skousen was an anti-communist crusader, a purported political philosopher, a historian accused of racist revisionism, and a right-wing conspiracy theorist. He contended that the Founding Fathers were direct descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, claimed that a global cabal of bankers controlled the world from behind the scenes, and wrote a book that referred to the "blessings of slavery." Skousen, who died in 2006, taught Romney at Brigham Young University.
On May 30, 2009, George Wythe University (named after the first law professor in America, who was a teacher of Thomas Jefferson), held a fundraising gala at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. Beck, who was then riding high as a Fox News host, was the special guest, tapped to receive the school's annual "Statesman Award." Romney introduced him.
In a video message—obtained by Mother Jones—that was recorded for the event, Romney praised Beck and this school, which the US Department of Justice has called a "diploma mill." He hailed George Wythe University and its supporters for "building statesmen" and "moving forward the cause of liberty and building men and women of virtue and wisdom, diplomacy, and courage." He introduced Beck as a "man who is really making an impact in our entire country today." Romney noted that Beck's "approach is refreshing" and that he "tries to focus his message on action…on learning the principles of freedom and liberty, on standing up and making your voice heard, on reading and applying the wisdom of our nation's founders to the challenges of today." Beck, he asserted, was "a statesman in his own right." Here's the video:
At the time of the fundraiser, Beck had established himself as a champion of the far right who peddled extreme and conspiratorial views. In the weeks prior to this event, he had declared that President Barack Obama was "clearly" a socialist who had "surrounded himself with Marxists his whole life," and Beck had told listeners of his radio show that Obama will "surely take away your gun or take away you ability to shoot a gun." Yet Beck was a towering figure on the right and a favorite of the emerging tea party movement. It was not odd that Romney, anticipating another presidential run, would seek to win his favor and proclaim him a "statesman." His endorsement of George Wythe (pronounced "with") University was more curious.
The school was founded in 1992 by Oliver DeMille, along with two other Skousen associates. DeMille is described in a 2007 university catalog as "a popular keynote speaker, writer, and business consultant" who earned a master's degree in "Christian Political Science" and a doctorate in religious education at the unaccredited and now-defunct Coral Ridge Baptist University. In 1992, DeMille published an over-the-top tract, The New World Order: Choosing Between Christ and Satan in the Last Days, in which he and his coauthor wrote:
The term "New World Order" means the same thing today—abolishment of Christianity and the adoption of Satan's plan—whether spoken in lodges and meetings of secret societies or on national television by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. This does not mean that Bush or Gorbachev are Satan-worshippers, but they have accepted his plan—that governments should use force to make people live correctly.
The book also noted:
During the coming year the secret combinations and the governments they control will do a number of things to build a Satanic New World Order. President Bush and many Congressmen, who are controlled by the secret societies, will attempt to further this cause and to continue the curtailment of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
DeMille's book endorsed an assortment of conservative conspiracy theories, including the notion that the "Establishment" was going to turn the United States into a socialist state, disarm the American military and put it under United Nations control, and merge the country with Mexico, Canada, and other Latin American countries. (According to an official history of GWU, DeMille later considered the publication of this book a mistake.)
In the program for the 2009 Beck-Romney fundraiser, DeMille's welcome message sounded the alarm: "The figurative redcoats are at our door as threats to our liberty, prosperity, and sovereignty are no longer ideological or symbolic, but very real and immediate." One way to preserve liberty, he noted, was to donate to George Wythe University.
The school was established in a hunting lodge in southern Utah purchased by William Doughty, a Skousen devotee who also wanted to create a self-sufficient alternative community for conservatives who believed that the Constitution was being dismantled by the US government. The initial plans called for a center devoted to Skousen and his writings and a constitutional theme park populated by Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry impersonators. Skousen and his family donated more than $100,000 and gave their blessing to Doughty's fundraising efforts.
The constitutional utopia never materialized. Doughty came under investigation for allegedly bilking investors and donors out of $1 million. (No further action was ever taken against him.) But George Wythe University held on and continued to advance the work of Skousen, a conspiratorialist in his own right, who advocated extreme views across a wide range of subjects.
In a 1962 book, Skousen denounced homosexuality and noted, "Every boy should know that masturbation may be the first step to homosexuality." In his 1970 book, The Naked Capitalist, Skousen asserted that a sinister "secret society of the London-Wall Street axis"—which included the Council on Foreign Relations—controlled the world and manipulated global events, financing revolutions and aligning itself with "dictatorial forces" to preserve its power. In a 1970 article, Skousen, who was active with the John Birch Society, claimed that criticism of the Mormon church for prohibiting African Americans from its priesthood was nothing but a communist conspiracy against the church. (He also recorded a spoken-word album for the John Birch Society on the dangers of LSD.) In The Five Thousand Year Leap, a supposed history influenced by Mormon theology and published in 1981, Skousen contended that the Constitution is rooted in the bible. (Beck has heavily promoted the book to his listeners and viewers and wrote the introduction to a new edition.)
In 1979, the Mormon church issued a directive distancing itself from an organization started by Skousen. Five years ago, the conservative National Reviewreferred to Skousen as an "all-around nutjob."
Still, until 2010, George Wythe University taught Skousen's work as part of its core curricula, alongside such classics as Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and Tom Paine's Common Sense. Freshmen were assigned The Five Thousand Year Leap and The Making of America, which came close to idealizing slavery, as in a passage in the book quoting a 1934 essay: "If the pickaninnies ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates." While promoting The Making of America, Skousen called for eliminating a host of federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency; for selling off national parks; for ending the direct election of US senators; and for weakening the separation of church and state.
In a 2007 radio interview, Romney said that he had not read The Making of America, but that it was "worth reading." Romney cited another Skousen book to explain Mormon theology regarding the second coming of Christ. In another radio interview that year, Romney recalled taking a class at BYU on the Bible taught by Skousen, whom he called "a brilliant man and a wonderful story teller."
George Wythe University has never been accredited, and for most of its history, its leadership has been comprised of people who earned their academic credentials from other unaccredited schools. (Andrew Groft, a recent president whose degrees came from George Wythe, was caught in a prostitution sting shortly after leaving the school.) For years, the school handed out generous "life experience" credits toward a Ph.D. in a host of different specialties. One of the school's most famous doctorate recipients is former Michigan congressman Mark Siljander. He served for a couple of years as a George Wythe trustee and earned a Ph.D. in international business from the school after writing a 10-page dissertation and attending no classes. In 2010, Siljander pleaded guilty to charges he had been an unregistered lobbyist for an Islamic charity with terrorist ties. In his sentencing memo, the Department of Justice labeled George Wythe University a "diploma mill."
Since its inception, the school has suffered financial difficulties. In recent years, it has been plagued with declining enrollment. Shortly before the Beck fundraiser, the university reported that its enrollment was half of what it had been the previous year, with only about 150 students. More recent money troubles have stemmed from ill-advised real estate deals in an effort to build a much larger campus. The high-profile endorsements from Beck and Romney did not do much to place the school on better footing. The gala itself, according to school officials, "failed to net any gains."
GWU has recently closed its doctorate program, and this spring announced that it was abandoning ambitious plans for the new campus. Its main building in Cedar City is for sale, and the school is now operating out of an office suite in Salt Lake City. Enrollment is down to a mere 60 students.
There are conflicting accounts as to how Romney came to endorse George Wythe. Shanon Brooks, a former GWU president and head of the committee that organized the 2009 gala, tells Mother Jones, "I believe that the video was secured via members of his family who had a connection with him." But Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, says, "Glenn Beck asked Gov. Romney to introduce him, and the governor agreed to do it." By this telling, Romney, as he was eyeing his next presidential bid, endorsed a conspiracy-promoting school of iffy standing to score points with a conspiracy-minded conservative icon—and ended up making common cause with crackpot thinking shunned by the Mormon church and the National Review.
On Thursday night, Mitt Romney, taking something of a victory lap following the first presidential debate, appeared on Fox News (where else?) with Sean Hannity (who else?), and was asked what he would have said had President Barack Obama referred to Romney's 47 percent rant. The Republican presidential contender replied:
Well, clearly in a campaign with hundreds if not thousands of question and answer sessions, now and then you're going to say something that doesn't come out right. In this case I said something that's just completely wrong. And I absolutely believe however that my life has shown that I care about the 100 percent and that has been demonstrated throughout my life. This whole campaign is about the 100 percent. When I become president it'll be about helping the 100 percent.
This was quite different than what Romney said in that hastily called press conference after Mother Jones released the 47 percent video. At that point, Romney maintained that his comments had been inelegant, but he embraced the "message" he had been trying to convey at that private $50,000-a-plate fundraising dinner at a Boca Raton mansion. Nothing wrong with these comments, except for a certain clumsiness, said the candidate who wrote a book titled No Apology.
So he's changed his tune. Big surprise? Not really. This is an indication, though, that he and his strategists believed his 47 percent minute are still an important factor in the race and a profound problem for him. Romney wouldn't otherwise shift his response at this stage. Focus groups conducted by the Obama and Romney campaigns have indicated that his 47 percent remarks have alienated independent voters and even "weak Republican voters." Apparently, the 47 percent effect is not fading fast.
After the debate, Obama was much criticized by Democrats (and pundits) for a lackluster—to be polite—debate performance during which he never mentioned the 47 percent video, Romney's days at Bain Capital, or Romney's refusal to release tax returns of previous years. As I reported yesterday, an Obama campaign official explained,
Not that we won't talk about [the 47 percent video] again. We will. But [what's] most compelling [is] hearing it from Romney himself. We've got that on the air at a heavy dollar amount in key states. And it's sunk in. Ultimately the president's goal last night was to speak past the pundits and directly to the undecided voter tuning in for the first time about the economic choice and his plans to restore economic security.
Perhaps Obama had made a smart decision. Obviously, Romney and his aides calculated that he had to say something more contrite about his 47 percent tirade, and he was ready to make this nonapology apology at the debate in front of one of the biggest audiences he will have between now and Election Day. Purposefully or not, Obama ended up denying Romney a national platform for his reversal and forced Romney to play this move on Fox, where he wouldn't be speaking directly to millions of people ticked off by his comments.
As for Romney's actual explanation, it was thin. He didn't say what had been wrong about his comments. Was he merely wrong on the numbers by conflating Obama voters with people who don't earn enough to pay taxes and Americans who receive some form of government assistance or payment? Was he wrong to say that half the nation are moochers and victims who don't take personal responsibility for their lives? What does he really think about all this—and them? His explanation required a bit more explanation. Yet Hannity—don't be shocked—didn't challenge him. Which means this case is not closed, and Romney's 47 percent moment is not likely to remain in the past.