Mitt Romney woke up on the day after the Fourth of July to another assault from friendly quarters.
The Wall Street Journal ran a scathing editorial lambasting Romney for allowing surrogates to say the recently upheld Affordable Care Act imposed a penalty, not a tax, on Americans who chose not to buy health insurance. Romney later reversed course, but the Journal assailed him for squandering a potentially critical line of attack against President Obama.
In a stroke, the Romney campaign contradicted Republicans throughout the country who had used the Chief Justice's opinion to declare accurately that Mr. Obama had raised taxes on the middle class, the Journal's editorial board wrote.
The oversight, the editorial continued, stemmed from Romney's fear of being labeled a flip-flopper -- a risk-averse strategy that, rather than make him seem consistent and substantive, has solidified fears that he lacks a core.
The Romney campaign thinks it can play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it's Mr. Obama's fault, the editorial reads, but the campaign needs to offer a larger economic narrative and vision than Mr. Romney has so far provided.
The critique is particularly startling given that it comes from The Wall Street Journal editorial board, a bastion of conservative thought. It is the latest illustration of Romney's fraught relationship with prominent conservative opinion-shapers who have been skeptical from the start of Romney's ideological squishiness. The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp (NASDAQ: NWS), whose owner, Rupert Murdoch, recently berated Romney on Twitter for running what he called a campaign not up to the task of beating Barack Obama.
When Romney was muddling through the Republican presidential primary with a steady but uninspiring 25 percent approval rating, George Will labeled him the pretzel candidate after offering a litany of Romney's hedges.
A straddle is not a political philosophy; it is what you do when you do not have one, Will wrote.
Charles Krauthammer opined in January that Romney simply doesn't have the capacity to explain with some color and sort of force conservative ideas. After Romney blundered into yet another gaffe, playing into the Obama campaign's depiction of him as affluent and out of touch -- the infamous I'm not very concerned about the very poor statement -- the National Review's Jonah Goldberg wrote a post entitled What is Wrong With This Guy? and offered that Romney is simply not a good politician.
And that's from the mainstream conservative pundits. Bloggers like Red State's Eric Erickson, who is more closely aligned with the Tea Party-inflected Republican grassroots than establishment kingmakers like Krauthammer and Will, has piled on early and often. A particularly despairing November 2011 post was entitled Mitt Romney as the Nominee: Conservatism Dies and Barack Obama Wins.
Romney reportedly sought a detente after he secured the nomination by calling an off-the-record meeting with a constellation of conservative outlets. An anonymous attendee characterized the powwow to the Huffington Post as sort of an olive branch to conservative media.
But as the Journal's editorial makes clear, publications are not automatically grasping that branch. The perception of Romney as an overly cautious politician who acts more out of expedience than conviction remains, the candidate's frequent appearances on Fox and Friends notwithstanding.
Mr. Romney promised Republicans he was the best man to make the case against President Obama, whom they desperately want to defeat, the Journal wrote. So far Mr. Romney is letting them down.