Republicans, especially in the pundit and strategist class, need to take a deep breath. Yes, Mitt Romney has been behind in most of the polls, both in the nation as a whole and in swing states. Yes, there is some evidence that the brutal and unscrupulous ad campaign by the Democrats is hurting his numbers. Yes, the press has been emphasizing his gaffes and alleged gaffes.
And yes, the air is now thick with advice about how Romney needs to reboot his campaign. Some of that advice is even coming from people who wish the campaign well. Many conservatives are urging Romney to make a bold running-mate pick to shake up the race. Others say he needs to offer more policy detail.
Many of the suggestions for veeps and policies are good ones, but Romney shouldn’t take any of them out of panic. The race remains tight, and Obama is below 50 percent both nationally and in the swing states. Romney is running a competent campaign that raises funds effectively, develops its messages and mostly stays on them, and can be trusted to execute its strategies well.
The Obama campaign is professional, too. It is handicapped, however, by its inability to run on public satisfaction with the state of the country or on public approval for the president’s major legislative accomplishments. Obama’s goal is therefore not to get the public to see him as deserving a second term so much as to make Romney appear to be an unacceptable alternative. Its message: Romney is a callous extremist and a Bush retread; he doesn’t care about the middle class and will hurt it.
Countering that message is more important for Romney than making the perfect vice-presidential choice. Here his strategy could use improvement. Romney’s principal argument is that the economy is weak, and therefore President Obama has failed. Blaming the weak economy on Obama has two political defects. First, it underestimates the public’s willingness to cut him slack because he inherited an economic crisis. Second, implying that all would be well if Obama’s policies were rolled back lends credence to the Obama campaign’s relentless attack on Romney as the second coming of George W. Bush.
Better for Romney to acknowledge that we have had some long-building problems in addition to ones of more recent creation, and to pledge to fix them. Our dysfunctional health, tax, and immigration systems long predate Obama even if he has made them worse. All need conservative reforms if they are to serve the country’s interests. So do our entitlement programs. Romney need not (and should not) repudiate Bush. He needs instead to make a case that transcends the Obama-vs.-Bush debate that the president is obviously desperate to have.
The point isn’t that Romney needs to offer “more details”: He doesn’t need to show voters an itemized budget. He needs to show the right details: the ones that strengthen the case for Romney as a reformer and champion of the middle class. He could, for example, make it clear that he would end the tax penalty on people who have to buy their own health insurance, thus helping them get insurance without the drawbacks of Obamacare.
Some Republican strategists say that for Romney to offer his own agenda would be to take attention away from where it should go: to Obama’s record. That advice is more simplistic than shrewd. To hold out the possibility of constructive reforms of American life is to underscore Obama’s failure.
This kind of campaign would be in keeping with Romney’s career of successful turnarounds. And it’s a campaign that could win.