Sep 9, 2012 - By Carl LeubsdorfThe long-running controversy over Mitt Romney's tax returns, destined to recur when he finally completes and releases his 2011 tax return this fall, illustrates one of the salient facts of modern-day presidential politics.
For all of the alleged brilliance of the strategists paid big bucks to craft winning campaigns, many of the most significant factors every four years result from self-inflicted wounds by the candidates themselves.
While the rival camps seek to drive memories of these verbal mishaps into the voters' consciousness, many will be long forgotten by the election, overshadowed by the political conventions and, even more importantly, the televised debates.
But others recur -- and post-election analyses will tab some as crucial turning points.
In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain's ill-timed comment about the soundness of the economy, followed by his suspension of campaigning to deal with the growing financial crisis, backfired when he sat mute at the White House meeting where Barack Obama outlined ways to cope with the problem.
In retrospect, analysts said -- and polling showed -- that's when the electorate turned decisively in Obama's favor.
Romney's political problem over his taxes could have been avoided had he released several years of returns much earlier, enabling negative aspects to be aired and dispensed with long before the crucial stages of the campaign.
In a way, his problem parallels what George W. Bush faced 12 years ago when news of his 1976 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol surfaced just days before the 2000 election. The news damaged him in a way that would largely have been avoided had he acknowledged it before his run began.
But the history of self-inflicted campaign wounds is wide-ranging and bipartisan. Just days before Romney finally said he had paid at least 13 percent of his income annually in taxes, Vice President Joe Biden prompted two days of Republican attacks, and subsequent Democratic damage control, with his outrageous formulation to a largely African-American crowd that Romney's plan to repeal financial controls would "put y'all back in chains."
Earlier, Obama caused weeks of unnecessary grief -- and a spate of Republican ads -- by saying the private sector was "doing fine" in creating jobs and telling those who own successful businesses that "you didn't build that" on your own. GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan has stumbled by denying -- and then acknowledging -- seeking federal funds from the Obama stimulus program he opposed.
Many self-inflicted wounds in past elections have occurred in televised debates. In 1976, the late President Gerald Ford lost narrowly to Jimmy Carter, in part because he inexplicably declared in a debate that Poland was free of Communist domination when it was part of the Soviet bloc. Former President George H.W. Bush may have sealed his defeat to Bill Clinton by checking his watch and looking distracted during a 1992 debate.
More recently, some candidates have suffered from their failure to respond adequately to rivals' assaults, notably the 2004 "swift boat" attacks on John Kerry's Vietnam War record that undercut one of the strongest parts of his pre-political resume.
And some analysts believe that, if Romney loses to Obama, one factor will be his failure to respond more vigorously to the effort by the president's re-election campaign to define the former Massachusetts governor as a rich, heartless, out-of-touch millionaire.
In the end, it's often difficult to single out one specific factor as the reason why a presidential candidate won or lost.
In 1976, Ford suffered from a number of other handicaps, including his bitter primary battle with Ronald Reagan and his pardon for former President Richard Nixon in a race he ultimately lost by some 17,000 votes in Ohio and Hawaii.
Before the Bush driving arrest surfaced in 2000, top strategist Karl Rove estimated the then-Texas governor would win by 6 percentage points with 320 electoral votes, 50 more than necessary.
In the end, rival Al Gore led the popular vote, and Bush needed a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in Florida's disputed election count to become the 43rd president.
Editor's note: Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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