On the night he definitively vanquished his last opponent not named Ron Paul, Mitt Romney unveiled a general-election speech. He promised that “a better America begins tonight,” and focused on jobs, wages, and the cost of living in the context of the clash between President Obama’s vision of a government-centered society and his vision of an opportunity society. Crisp, pointed, and optimistic, it was Romney’s best speech of the campaign. We were especially glad to hear him call out the president’s reelection team for its obsession with tawdry distractions.
The Romney campaign has been adept at counter-punching against the nonsense lately. But to win a series of tactical victories in foolish controversies could still amount to a strategic loss. The Obama campaign cannot run on the president’s record, since his major legislative achievements are unpopular. It cannot run on the state of the country, which the public considers deeply unsatisfactory. It cannot win a choice-of-visions campaign because most people prefer a smaller government to a bigger one. We therefore expect repeated attempts to divert the public’s attention from the fundamental questions before it with the asinine and irrelevant: The war on women. How Romney transported his dog in 1983. His tax returns.
Romney would be doing a triple disservice to the country if he allowed the campaign to proceed on these lines. First, because the country deserves a more serious discussion of the stakes of the election. Second, because this sort of campaign would make it more likely that the worse alternative prevailed. Third, because an electoral victory achieved on these terms would reduce President Romney’s ability to make accomplishments on the scale the country requires.
The alternative campaign strategy is to stick to the basics, as outlined in the speech last night: Obama’s policies are not working; they will not work, because Obama misunderstands the limits of government and the genius of our country; and there is a better way. On that last point, Romney can be more specific than Obama was about his agenda in 2008 without getting bogged down in details. To some extent, Romney already has offered such specifics and begun to draw the appropriate contrast.
Obama’s economic agenda consists of raising taxes, particularly on investment, while allowing spending on entitlements to grow so much faster that debt levels rise with no end in sight. The Romney alternative is to rein in the growth of entitlements to keep taxes from rising to unprecedented levels, and to reform the tax code so that revenues can be raised at the lowest possible cost to the economy. Obama would direct subsidies to companies and industries he considers promising. Romney should reject that policy as a certain path to corruption and failure, and instead allow the market to identify tomorrow’s rising economic sectors within the context of an impartial rule of law that only government can provide. Obama would dramatically expand the federal government’s management of health care in the illusory hope of finding efficiencies. The Romney alternative should be to remove obstacles in the way of small businesses and individuals who seek health insurance.
Reporters recently overheard Romney telling some donors about some policies he was considering, including shutting down the Department of Housing and Urban Development and eliminating the tax breaks for state and local taxes and for mortgages on second homes. Important steps both, but footnotes to what a presidential campaign should be about. Romney needs to take the campaign to a higher level and keep it there, so that the public may start to see him as more presidential than our current president.