I was wrong.
I thought that when Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan to be his running mate, it meant that the Romney campaign was preparing to wage a bold campaign based on big issues. Instead, the Romney campaign seems to continuing in the assumption that you can beat something with nothing.
Romney’s problems stem from two sources. First, the Romney campaign has believed from the start that this election is a simple referendum on the president. Given Obama’s manifestly disastrous performance, all that Romney needs to do is submit his résumé, explain what a bad job President Obama is doing now, and wait for the president to be “fired.” Thus Romney desperately seeks to avoid doing anything that might involve taking an unpopular position and risk offending voters. He might talk about the president’s refusal to face “hard truths,” but he’s not about to utter any himself.
The second factor may be even more significant, and harder to fix. Mitt Romney really is not a man with a deeply ideological worldview. Sure, he’s a conservative. His preference is for market-based solutions and a more-limited government. He thinks taxes are too high. Clearly he is to the right of President Obama on nearly every issue. But fundamentally, Romney thinks like the corporate CEO that he is. He eschews ideology in favor of competence. He solves problems. He would make the trains run on time. That also is part of why Romney’s campaign seems to resemble more a job application rather than a political campaign.
The result is a themeless mush of a campaign that boils down to little more than “Vote for me because I’m not Barack Obama.”
That is not a campaign that is going to deliver any sort of mandate for conservative governance. Nor is it likely to help Republicans win back the Senate. Most important, however, as recent polls show, it is not a campaign that is winning.
Take Obamacare. It’s hard to find a major government program more unpopular than the president’s plan for government-run health care. Two years after its passage, more than half of all voters still want to see it repealed. Yet Romney hasn’t made it a key campaign issue. Of course he promises to repeal it, and he cites it as one of President Obama’s many job-killing regulations, but where are the television commercials attacking its failures, such as the lie that “if you like your plan, you can keep it”?
Instead of making attacks on Obamacare central to his campaign, Romney continually muddies the water, talking about the “number of things I like in [the president’s] health-care reform,” or hearkening back to how “proud” he is of the nearly identical health-care plan he put in place as governor of Massachusetts. This may not mean he won’t repeal the law — Romney may well have other ways to achieve some of Obamacare’s more popular goals — but it hardly makes for “a choice not an echo.”
Romney is similarly defensive about the auto bailout. He could be constantly pointing out that it will cost taxpayers at least $25 billion, the difference between what taxpayers paid for GM stock and the value of that stock today plus the costs of special tax breaks and other giveaways to the automakers. Or he could explain that the autoworker jobs “saved” in Ohio and Michigan may have come at the expense of job losses in Tennessee and North Carolina. He might even have challenged the notion that government should be “saving” specific companies in the first place. Instead, Romney has been trying to minimize the differences between his position on the issue and that of the president.
Well, then, what about entitlement reform and debt reduction? If the selection of Paul Ryan meant anything, it should have been a call for an adult conversation about cutting government spending and reforming Medicare and Social Security. Instead, we’ve been treated to generic bromides that would have been right at home in, say, the Bush 2004 campaign. Romney talks about limiting government to no more than 20 percent of GDP — a higher percentage than it consumed under Bill Clinton — but refuses to tell us what he would cut. Can anyone name one specific program that Romney would do away with?
And despite naming Ryan as his running mate, Romney’s position on entitlement reform remains maddeningly vague. Does he embrace Ryan’s plan for Medicare reform? Yes, no, and maybe. Romney says he hasn’t “gone through [the Ryan plan] piece by piece and said, ‘Oh, here’s a place where there’s a difference.’ I can’t imagine any two people, even in the same party, who have exactly the same positions on all issues . . . My plan for Medicare is very similar to his plan for Medicare.” Fair enough. In what ways is it different, then, and in what ways the same? We aren’t quite sure.
In fact, the only thing we know for sure about Romney’s Medicare plan is that it won’t involve actually cutting Medicare. It won’t make any changes for current recipients or those nearing retirement, which is a politically prudent, if budgetarily dubious, proposition. But it also doesn’t seem to involve much sacrifice in the future either.
Instead of having an adult conversation about the fact that Medicare is going broke, Romney has spent most of his time attacking President Obama for cutting Medicare. Romney has a good point, of course, that Obama would use the savings from his cuts to fund Obamacare rather than to reform Medicare itself. But Romney seems to be attacking the very idea of cuts, and implying that Medicare can be reformed without anyone paying more or receiving diminished benefits.
Tax reform is another issue on which Romney seems to want to have it every possible way at once. He promises to reduce tax rates across the board, while simplifying the code and eliminating loopholes and deductions. So far, so good. But he refuses to say what loopholes he would eliminate. Surely he can come up with at least one? Maybe opposing the tax break for NASCAR-speedway owners might hurt him in Ohio or North Carolina, but surely he is secure enough in Alaska to come out against the special tax credit for Eskimo whaling captains? If he can’t bring himself to fight the deduction for second-home mortgages, how about opposing the tax break for Puerto Rican rum?
Worse, in promising that he won’t reduce taxes on upper-income taxpayers in the process, Romney seems to have surrendered to the president’s class-warfare approach. If taxes really are discouraging business investment and job creation, why not cut them for everyone? Yes, that might, under static assumptions, reduce government revenue. But hasn’t Romney also claimed that our deficit results from government overspending, not low levels of revenue?
Romney also seems to have bought into Obama-style Keynesian economics when he insists that defense spending shouldn’t be cut because it would result in a loss of jobs. Why is defense spending any different from any other government spending in this regard? Given the debt crisis and the dearth of conventional military threats facing us, military spending should be on the table along with everything else. But at the very least, if Romney believes we cannot cut defense spending, he should not do so by embracing government spending as stimulus.
We know what Barack Obama stands for. He’s going to give people lots and lots of free stuff, from health care to student loans to green energy. Heck, he’s even going to give everyone free birth control. He’s going to pay for it all by taxing evil rich people and businesses. This may be utter nonsense, but it is something.
Mitt Romney? Well, at a recent campaign appearance, he resolutely declared that he would never “take God off our coins.” There’s a rallying cry.
Just before the start of the two conventions, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that voters support a limited government with fewer services over larger government by a whopping 56–-38 percent margin. Yet polls this week show President Obama, the unapologetic candidate of big government, leading Romney by several percentage points.
Simply put, playing not to lose rather than playing to win is a questionable strategy when you are ahead. When you are behind, it’s sure loser.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.