Mitt Romney has recently been arguing that the middle class would do better with him as president than with a reelected Barack Obama. He should keep it up, using the contrast between their positions on taxes, health care, and energy especially to make his case. The point is not, of course, to say that he will shower government benefits on the middle class at someone else’s expense. That’s not a viable strategy for improving the lot of the vast majority of people, and certainly not a viable strategy for a Republican looking to compete with a Democrat. The point is, instead, to counter the impression that Republicans have no ideas about how to further the interests of anyone but the richest Americans.
Winning on this front, or even narrowing the gap with Obama, is Romney’s most important political task. It is more important than repeating that the economy is still lousy (something Americans already know), for example, or that Obama has been bad for Israel (something the voters most concerned about the issue either know or cannot be made to learn). Romney does not need a detailed policy agenda to make the middle-class argument (not that we would mind one!). He does not need to reinvent himself. He has already endorsed the policies, in broad outline. He has made the case before, sporadically. He needs to make it in a more sustained and focused way.
What Romney has not done is address the major problem he has in making the case: the shadow of the George W. Bush years. Americans are more likely to blame Bush for the financial crisis that started on his watch than to blame Obama for the slow recovery from it. And even before the financial crisis, the last period of Republican governance was not especially good for America’s middle class. Wages were flat for people in the middle of the income spectrum even when the economy was growing.
The Romney campaign acknowledges that the crisis began before Obama took office, but it has next to nothing to say about what Bush-era Republicans got wrong. The result is that Romney appears to be saying that everything was going swimmingly until Obama came along. That impression lends credence to Obama’s attempt to portray Romney as running for Bush’s third term. Romney’s silence about the errors of the Bush years is, on the other hand, understandable, since many Republicans continue to hold Bush in high esteem as a good man who tried to do a lot of good things. Since most Americans consider Bush a failure, Romney cannot embrace him either. So Bush has been an awkward non-presence in the campaign: the man who was not there.
Instead of an explicit repudiation or an embrace, Romney needs to move beyond the controversies of the Bush era. To do that, he has to alter his critique of Obama. What Romney should say is that our country has problems that have been building since long before Obama took office, and that what’s wrong with Obama is that he has either left them unaddressed or made them worse. The country’s looming debt crisis, its dysfunctional health-care system, and its irrational tax code are three of them. Romney will take on those challenges head-on. Those are the ideas he has been running on, after all.
This argument against Obama will almost certainly strike swing voters as more plausible than one that blames him for everything unsatisfactory in American life; it weakens the weight of the Bush anchor on Romney’s fortunes; and it’s probably what Romney actually believes. So why not say it?