President Obama is ahead, but he is not in a position of overwhelming strength. Romney just needs to gain a few points in the polls to defeat him — and thus be in a position to appoint conservative judges, sign legislation repealing and replacing Obamacare, and begin to reform the entitlement programs that threaten the country’s fiscal future. (See this Sean Trende article if you need more convincing about the folly of declaring Obama the winner already.)
Romney’s key weakness — the place where he most needs to improve his performance — is that he isn’t seen as a champion of middle-class interests. In this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Obama is leading him by 19 points on the question of who would be the best at looking out for the middle class. This weakness is what underlies every other one Romney has, from his low favorability ratings to Obama’s advantage in the head-to-head numbers. Romney doesn’t need to make the case that he would help the middle class at the expense of the rich; that’s Obama’s play. But he does need to emphasize, again and again, how his agenda would help the vast majority of Americans.
It would be easier to make that case if Romney had advanced a plan to replace Obamacare that would tear down the barriers that keep millions of people from being able to buy health insurance, or if he had embraced a middle-class-friendly tax reform such as an expansion of the child tax credit. But it’s too late in this campaign to expect much in the way of new policy initiatives. Romney will have to make use of what he’s got — and that’s actually quite a bit.
So: Run ads pointing out that his energy policies will create jobs and lower prices, that he will block Obamacare’s middle-class tax increases and will replace them with policies that allow people to keep and buy their own insurance, that his tax reform will lead to higher growth and therefore higher wages. All this may sound pretty basic, but it hasn’t been done in a sustained way. (Several months ago, writing for NR about Romney’s 59-point plan and the mini-book promoting it, I noted that the campaign almost never remembered to mention wages.)
In recent days the Romney campaign has seized on evidence that Obama has spoken favorably of “redistribution.” If the argument is that Obama knows no way to help people other than forcible transfers of money, then it’s one worth making. If it’s that he’s an un-American socialist, it seems rather less promising. The objective of 80 to 90 percent of what the Romney campaign does should be to convince Americans in the broad middle of the economic spectrum that his agenda and leadership would make their lives and their nation better.
One thing the campaign needs to forget about is the gender gap. Republicans always do worse among women than among men, and it’s not because of abortion or because women think Republicans don’t respect them. It’s because women tend to be more liberal on foreign policy and the welfare state. Romney has spent much too much time trying to make a gendered appeal to women. He needs to gain ground among men and women alike. He needs, that is, to worry about his absolute levels of support and not about the size of the gap. A middle-class message should help him among voters of both sexes.
Some conservative pundits, and a few advisers, have urged Romney to give a big foreign-policy speech. I am skeptical that Romney will win many votes by cutting into or even reversing Obama’s lead on national security, and think that this should not be the dominant note the campaign sounds in its remaining weeks. If Romney decides to follow this advice, however, it probably makes sense to make the theme President Obama’s astonishing confidence that the mere fact of his presidency would alter the country’s strategic position in the world, and the dashing of that narcissistic hope. Part of the political value of this accurate critique is that it nicely ties together the president’s foreign and domestic records of overpromising and underdelivering.
Come to think of it, “Romney will deliver for America” wouldn’t be a bad slogan for a renewed campaign.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is senior editor of National Review.