Time is running out for the Romney campaign. With polls suggesting that the president is opening up a lead in key battleground states, tonight’s debate has become critical to Mitt Romney’s hopes for winning the presidency. The narrative of the race has become one of the American people liking President Obama, his wife, and his family, not blaming him for the impotent economic recovery, and trusting him more than his Republican challenger to fix the problems facing us. The president’s team has also successfully cast Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy who pays less in taxes than middle-class families.
Romney must shatter these perceptions. Here are the five things he needs to do to win this week’s debate, recast the race, and begin to get the momentum necessary to capture the Electoral College on November 6.
1. Point to the bad economy, but don’t dwell on it. Instead, sell your own plan.
Romney will not win this first debate by simply reciting the facts and figures on how bad the economy is and blaming the president for it. Granted the facts are horrible: Unemployment has remained above 8 percent for Obama’s entire term, and it was over 9 percent for all of 2010 and much of 2009 and 2011. Under this president, people aren’t just losing their jobs; they’re losing their place in the work force altogether. At 63.5 percent, labor-force participation is at its lowest level since 1981, the year Ronald Reagan took over from Jimmy Carter. The shrinking workforce is not a coincidence; it is an outcome of President Obama’s failed and misguided policies like the “stimulus” and Dodd-Frank. Moreover, the president’s health-care-reform law, while creating a trillion-dollar new entitlement program, has failed to contain prices or reduce the uninsured population; the cost of employer-sponsored insurance plans went up 4.6 percent last year, and the number of uninsured Americans climbed 1.7 percent in the first quarter of 2012.
But voters want to know more from Governor Romney. They want to know, “How will you make things better for me and my family?” Romney needs to describe his own plan with specificity on how he will help the private sector create jobs, and then rightly criticize the president for not having a plan. Make the president defend more stimulus. As they say in the South, that dog won’t hunt.
Zinger moment: “Mr. President, your plan to strengthen the economy hasn’t worked in the last four years. Why should we believe it will work in the next four?”
2. Convince voters that it is okay to fire the president.
Many swing voters who went for Barack Obama in 2008 are not angry with him; they are disappointed.
Before Obama’s inauguration, Americans were hopeful that this new president would fulfill his lofty campaign rhetoric and bring nonpartisan solutions to the nation’s biggest problems. Instead, the Obama administration has been the most partisan in memory.
This is a point requiring finesse. The structure of Romney’s argument should be something like this: “We all wanted your plan for ‘hope and change’ to be successful, but it hasn’t been, and although you seem like a pretty cool guy, we regrettably need to make a change to someone who has the skill set and experience to turn this country around. No hard feelings.” The decision must be presented as one made not out of anger, but out of necessity.
Zinger moment: “Mr. President, America cannot afford to give you another chance. What you’ve tried hasn’t worked, and we need to try something new. Neither hope nor change will pay the rent or put food on the table. America’s families cannot hang on for another four years.”
3. Leave no doubt that this election is about our children and grandchildren.
The Obama campaign has done a good job of positioning the president on the side of seniors, Hispanics, and middle-class families. David Axelrod and David Plouffe know that getting to 270 electoral votes is not just about winning states, but about winning constituencies. The big constituency left open for Romney is our children and grandchildren. But they can’t vote, you say? While it is true that many of them cannot vote yet, their parents and grandparents can, and together they constitute the vast majority of the electorate. As important as the issue of jobs and the economy is, equally important is the issue of trillion-dollar deficits and a skyrocketing $16 trillion national debt. Not only is this the issue that will determine whether or not America continues to be the land of unending opportunity, but it is an issue on which the president has no defense. The facts are compelling.
When Barack Obama was elected president, the national debt was $10.6 trillion. By the time his term of office ends in January, it will be $16.6 trillion. That’s a larger increase in four years than we had in the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. To put things in a longer perspective, it took America nearly 200 years to reach $1 trillion in debt, which it did around 1980. If the debt keeps increasing at the current rate, the interest alone will be $1 trillion a year by the end of this decade, and our government will be unable to make those payments. President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have put spending on steroids over the last four years. With another four years, they could do what no one else has ever done: destroy our economy and our country, and do it from within.
Zinger moment: “Mr. President, you yourself said that if you did not turn the economy around in your first three years in office, your presidency would be a ‘one-term proposition.’ If you were unable to keep your promise to for economic recovery then, why should the American people believe you now?”
4. Focus with specificity on the president’s mishandling of the Middle East.
While foreign policy doesn’t poll that well and will not be the focus of the first debate, the errors of the Obama administration in our dealings abroad must be on display in Colorado tonight to demonstrate the larger point: The president lacks the competency to deal with the myriad problems facing America. President Obama’s naïveté and his appeasement-driven foreign policy have endangered American lives and interests around the globe.
The most recent example is the blatant terrorist-led assassination of our ambassador in Libya on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.
Mitt Romney must speak of the leadership required of the U.S. in responding to crises such as the ongoing mass murder in Syria, the growth of terror cells in Yemen, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Iran’s ongoing challenge to the United States and Israel in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The U.S. has never furthered its interests by kowtowing to foreign adversaries. The world is safer when America is strong, and Governor Romney must encapsulate President Obama’s foreign-policy disasters and explain how he would lead the U.S. and the world to a better place.
Focusing on foreign policy and the Middle East will also allow Romney to highlight the incompetency of the president’s energy policy. The Obama administration’s misguided investments in alternative energy have brought us such failures as the $535 million Solyndra debacle and General Motors’ Chevy Volt, which, according to media reports, costs $89,000 to produce, but retails for $39,000. The president’s inexplicable stubbornness in refusing to approve energy projects like the Keystone Pipeline is more grist for the mill. Since President Obama took office, the price of gasoline has gone from $1.89 a gallon to above $3.93 a gallon this September. Energy independence would not only make energy more available and more affordable for the American people, but it would also choke off billions in funds to those who stand against us.
Zinger moment: “Your ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, misled the American people when she said the attack in Libya that killed our ambassador was not a terrorist attack. What steps have you taken, Mr. President, to ensure that another member of your administration won’t mislead the American people?”
5. Renew Americans’ vision for prosperity under a Romney presidency.
With a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, Ronald Reagan convinced us that Americans were special, and that our best days still lay ahead. This is the story Governor Romney must tell: If only we can replace this president and his cronies in Congress, America can get back on track to being once again what it was, and even much more. As the children of a nation born of pioneers not content to be ruled by monarchy, we embrace ingenuity and effort, knowing that with the right idea and hard work, anyone can move from Horatio Alger’s rags to riches. We have also proven ourselves the most generous people on earth, giving of our blood and treasure to lead the world as a force for good. America must not apologize for its place at the head of the table.
Romney must also remind undecided voters that our nation’s prosperity is founded not on the success of our government, but on the success of our people. He must clearly state that millions of American small-business owners did build that, and that in so doing they braved the risk of losing their life savings in pursuit of their dreams.
Zinger moment: “The American people are not better off than they were four years ago, and our prospects, if we have four more years with you in charge, are not very bright. Your plan is more spending, more borrowing, more taxes, and a diminished America. My plan is to create jobs, cut spending, cut taxes, cut the deficit, cut the debt, preserve Medicare and Social Security, and ensure peace through strength.”
If Romney can communicate these five points, he can be our next president. The stage for the upcoming debates is already crowded with a cluster of current events, campaign gotchas, and global crises that hold great potential to overshadow what truly matters to undecided voters. Mitt Romney acted boldly when he chose Paul Ryan as his running-mate; the former governor must be equally bold in cutting through the partisan distractions and telling Americans what is wrong, how he will fix it, and what we can achieve together.
— George LeMieux is a former Republican U.S. senator from Florida.