The cliché: As Newt Gingrich rose in the polls this month, Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen wondered if it was time Romney started fighting his rivals instead of letting them self-destruct, titling his column "Time for Mitt Romney to take the mitts off?" Later, when Romney's campaign allies started speaking out against Gingrich, National Journal seemed to answer Thiessen in the affirmative with the headline: "The Mitts Come Off: Romney Camp Slams Gingrich." Twitter reactions to the little Mitt-pun ranged from "headline of the morning" to "inevitable..." And yet, as Romney's offensive against Gingrich continues, Business Insider today penned the similar-sounding headline "The Mitts Come Off: Romney Steps Up Gingrich Attack."
Where it's from: We've written before about the persistence of politics-as-boxing metaphors like "the gloves come off" and this appears to be just a simple infusion of two things journalists love: Mitt Romney puns (of which we've also written) and perennial political phrases. And in fact, it's so tempting a line, that it's come up several times in Romney's political past. In 2008, the New York Daily News ran the headline "Mitts come off in duel with McCain." And "When the Mitts come off" was the title of more local Worcester Magazine piece from 2002.
Why it's catching on: Thiessen gets credit for prescience here. He noted Romney's previous tactic of letting those surge in the polls get taken down by Romney's other struggling competitors. Meanwhile, the "unflappable" candidate (yet another favorite Romney cliche) could stand aside and look calm, presidential, above the fray, and, well, unflapped. But his column also pointed out reasons that strategy might not work any longer against the surge of "Newtmentum." And indeed, Romney's campaign appeared to agree, or so the political narrative makers like to say, by sending the likes of former New Hampshire Governor Jon Sununu to speak out against Gingrich, and increasing his negative attacks on the rival with thinly veiled ads about the length of his marriage. So on the surface, the "mitts coming off" seems to be catching hold because Romney is, for the first significant time, taking action against a new front-runner and looking a little worried about it.
Why else? But it's never good to simply trust the political narrative. Watch any debate and you'll see that Romney hasn't exactly been punching with his "mitts" on all the time. This isn't actually the first instance this year in which he's gone negative against an opponent, as these headlines might have you believe. So the fact that this phrase has come up during his previous campaigns should be a sign that maybe his "mitts" are always off. He's just clever at concealing it.