Conservatives have never quite been happy with Mitt Romney on policy. Right-leaning critics worry about his past positions, or they think he provides too few specifics about how he would lower taxes, cut spending, and reform entitlements.
According to Romney-campaign insiders, the clamor may soon be quieted. After Romney returns from his trip abroad, he will ramp up his economic argument prior to the Republican National Convention. At his campaign’s Boston headquarters, fresh talking points are being finalized.
Romney’s late-summer push will focus on middle-class families and how they are faring in the Obama economy. A major policy address may be in the works, sources say, but Romney is more likely to roll out his polished stump speech via a swing-state bus tour.
In background conversations, Romney aides frame August as an important month. The themes of the Tampa convention will be outlined in broad strokes, and Romney will be “more aggressive,” one adviser says, when explaining his positions.
But conservatives should not expect any startling developments. As former Missouri senator Jim Talent, a Romney adviser, said in mid July, there will be no “October surprise,” or a summer surprise, on policy. Romney’s positions have “already been outlined,” he said.
Instead, Romney will likely elaborate on previously unveiled economic policies, hoping to give them more prominence. Top Romney sources say political junkies may be familiar with Romney’s positions, but for many voters, a reintroduction would be helpful.
“He doesn’t need a whole lot of new,” says former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, a Romney adviser. “There is no magic bullet. What he needs to do is keep emphasizing the key changes in course and get those things right — on regulations, spending, and taxes.”
Romney aides expect the presumptive Republican nominee to do largely that — leading and concluding his rallies and speeches with economic arguments. In an economic-policy speech in St. Louis in June, Romney gave a hint of what’s to come next month.
“Instead of throwing more borrowed money at bad ideas, I will lower tax rates, simplify the tax code, and get the American economy running at full strength,” Romney said. “My vision believes in the ingenuity of the American people.”
Repealing Obamacare will also feature in the stump speech, but it won’t be the core element of Romney’s message. In terms of replacement, ideas include expanding coverage with pools and exchanges, buying insurance across state lines, and malpractice reform.
In front of certain audiences, Romney will tout Social Security reform, block-granting Medicaid, and premium support for Medicare. As he said at the Detroit Economic Club earlier this year, “When it comes to Social Security, we will slowly raise the retirement age. We will slow the growth in benefits for higher-income retirees.”
On a variety of other policy issues, Romney will continue to pick his spots. When he addressed the NAACP convention in Houston, for example, he took care to highlight education, and pledged to give federal support to charter schools. But these issues will not be his main thrust.
With Romney sticking to the economy on the trail, surrogates such as Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty will be frequently tapped to present Romney’s views, advisers add.
“He doesn’t need to lay out new policies,” Ryan says. “It’s simply about getting up there and offering a vision, emphasizing the choice between two futures. It’s a counter-narrative, a myth of sorts, that [Romney] hasn’t been specific enough.”
But other conservative observers maintain that Romney must do more. Alex Brill, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, tells NRO that Romney is hitting the right notes, but he may have to detail more of his economic agenda near the convention.
“At some point between now and the election, he’ll need to have an additional round of policy details,” Brill says. “He’s going to need to start to define how he’s different and better by being a little more concrete, thinking about the near and long term simultaneously — creating confidence in the economy and stability in fiscal policy.”
For much of July, the Romney campaign has blasted President Obama’s controversial “you didn’t build that” remarks about the government’s role in supporting private enterprise. The next step, an adviser says, includes mixing solutions with the outrage.
In essence, after his messaging on a foreign-policy trip met a mixed reception, Romney will return to what his campaign considers his wheelhouse, with the economy at the forefront of his campaign. Friday’s potentially dismal July jobs report will play a part in teeing up the candidate’s August emphasis.
On taxes, it has been months since Romney released his tax-cut plan during the primary. The proposal, which would reduce every individual tax rate by 20 percent, lowering the top rate to 28 percent, was met with much applause from the Right. But it has gathered dust.
In the coming weeks, Romney will remind voters about his plan to cut rates, and his openness to getting rid of certain deductions, sources say. Yet around Romney World, there is a general sense that Romney doesn’t need to change his platform.
“The American public is fired up about the incompetence of the president on the economy,” says former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman, a Romney adviser. “People look at Romney’s 25 years in the private sector and know that he gets it. I don’t understand the angst about his vision. He has been bold and clear on his policies.”
So across the board, the recalibration will be slight. As the campaign heats up, the changes will be more in tone. Romney’s stump speech may include more data than usual, enabling the former consultant to solidify his critique of the president.
“This campaign has a calendar in its head about what it should do and when,” says former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a Romney adviser. “This is an excellent time for him to talk about economic policy, since people are starting to pay attention.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.