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 email 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.
Running for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney announced, "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country." In 2008, he admitted reversing himself on abortion rights. But he said that as governor, on "every issue that related to protecting the sanctity of life, I came down on the side of life" - eliciting disagreement from pro-life groups, whose memories differed.
Changing positions on a major issue isn't unusual among presidential candidates, and it isn't necessarily fatal. After opposing President George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001, McCain supported them seven years later. During his presidential campaign, Obama, who once endorsed a ban on handguns, assured voters, "I won't take your handgun away."
Romney, however, should be past the stage where he explains his metamorphosis from a liberal Republican to a conservative one. That was what his 2008 presidential campaign was for. This time, his focus could be on demonstrating that, alone in the field, he has what it takes to unseat Obama.
By bungling his economic message, Romney revives the suspicion that he can't stick to a position or stick to the facts. He also undermines his main advantage: the belief among many Republicans that the economy will be the deciding issue and that Romney, with his business background and managerial acumen, is best suited to exploit it.
But on the economy, he can't keep his story straight. It brings to mind Ted Kennedy's wisecrack about Romney's abortion views: "I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple choice."
Romney should be debating the Obama administration on the economy. Lately, he's debating himself, and he's losing.