In the last week or so, Mitt Romney has accused Barack Obama of focusing his campaign on "small things," but let's be honest—at this point, everybody is focused on small things. And these small things are unlikely to make much of a difference with so little time left. Which is why it was odd to see the Romney campaign stumble so badly with the Jeeps being built in China attack. How did they manage to take a criticism that would likely have just glanced off Obama anyway, and turn it into something that not only had everyone talking about Obama's best case to Ohio voters (the auto bailout), but also made Romney look cynical and dishonest?
Here's what I think happened. They heard the first, somewhat unclear report that Chrysler was going to be manufacturing Jeeps in China, without quite understanding what it meant, namely that they will be making them for the Chinese market (because of Chinese tarriffs, Chrysler would only be able to sell the Jeeps there if they make them there). By the time they figured out all the facts, Romney had already mentioned it on the stump, saying inaccurately that the company was "thinking of moving all production to China." So the campaign probably figured, we can still use this to try to discredit the bailout, we'll just be careful about the words we use.
And that's where they didn't quite grasp the implications of what they were doing. If you look at the ad they made, you'll see that though it's obviously meant to deceive people into thinking American jobs are being sent to China as a result of the bailout, the words are literally true. "Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy," the ad says, "and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps [pause for effect] in China." The Romney campaign thought they could play by the ordinary campaign rules, which say that if you say something true but intentionally misleading, you will usually be judged not guilty. Reporters will discuss the issue in the he said/she said format, with you saying you're telling the truth and your opponent saying you aren't, and you can declare victory.
But that's not what happened. Instead, Romney got a wave of negative coverage over the issue, with journalist after journalist saying forthrightly in their stories that the Romney attack is misleading or deceptive. This was particularly true in Michigan and Ohio, where the state of the auto industry is kind of important. Why did they do that? Two reasons, I think. The first and less important one is that after so many shamelessly false statements by Romney and his campaign, journalists' tolerance for this stuff may have run out. But the more important reason is the car companies stepped up to act as third-party validators of the truth. The Chrysler CEO wrote an emphatic letter to the company's employees assuring them no American jobs were moving to China, and a GM spokesperson criticized the ad as well.
Which, if the Romney campaign had been a bit more thoughtful, they might have expected. Don't forget that Chrysler and GM have their own interest in maintaining support for the bailout. They got lots of help from American taxpayers, and they want those taxpayers to see the bailout as a success story, continue to feel good about American car companies, and continue to buy their cars. They might stay silent while Republicans criticize the bailout, but if you accuse them of a specific act that they aren't guilty of, they're going to speak up. Romney stepped over a line from attacking Barack Obama to attacking Chrysler, and he should have anticipated that Chrysler wouldn't take it lying down. When Chrysler spoke up and explained the facts, that gave the press permission to step out of the he said/she said bind and report accurately that Romney was being misleading.
And that's how, just a few days before the election, Romney shot himself in the foot in the one state he absolutely, positively can't afford to lose.