Steve Chapman
Any candidate for president can fall victim to occasional stumbles, lapses, gaffes and clunkers. But Mitt Romney has a shot at raising ineptitude to an art form.

The other day, he had to answer a question about how the economy has fared under the current administration. Before he was done, though, Romney managed to give the impression that if he dove off a dock, he'd miss the water. He also undermined his chief assets in the campaign: a supposed mastery of economic issues and a reputation for competence.

Over and over, the former Massachusetts governor has accused President Barack Obama of taking a weak economy and applying leeches. Announcing his candidacy last month, Romney said, "When he took office, the economy was in recession. He made it worse." In a June debate, he said, "He didn't create the recession, but he made it worse and longer."

This is not strictly factual, since the downturn officially ended two years ago, but the charge could be defended as faithful to the reality of what Americans are experiencing. The number of people employed in nonfarm jobs has dropped by some 2.5 million under this administration, which makes the recovery feel like a cruel fraud.

Romney might ask: Who are you going to believe about the recession? The National Bureau of Economic Research, which says it's over, or your neighbor, who's been unemployed for three years?

But when Romney was asked last week about the accuracy of his contention that Obama worsened the recession, he did not claim to be invoking a truth that trumps mere facts. Instead, he denied making such an assertion. "I didn't say that things are worse," he insisted. "What I said was that the economy hasn't turned around."

The denial makes him look confused and dishonest. A campaign spokesman did Romney no favor by saying (in an e-mail to me) his comment "was in response to part of the reporter's question about the stock market" -- which it obviously wasn't, and which compounded one risible deception with another. Nor did it help when, a few days later, Romney went back to saying Obama "made things worse."

This incident is not just an isolated flub. It's a reminder of Romney's chief flaws as a candidate. One is his habit of eagerly changing any position whenever he can gain by it. Another is his tendency to deny having done so.

In 2008, during the GOP primaries, he accused John McCain of proposing legislation that offered "amnesty" to illegal immigrants. Challenged by McCain in a debate, he denied using the term "amnesty," only to be forced later to admit it. He also had to explain why he had previously praised McCain's approach to the issue.

In 2007, Romney said he favored banning "assault weapons." In 2008, he opposed the idea.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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