Some Advice for the Mitt Romney Campaign
Romney's recent statements regarding events in Egypt and Libya
It's Still the Economy (Stupid)
If the Republican Party had a strong candidate, they would probably win the upcoming presidential election fairly easily. Unfortunately for them, they have Mitt Romney, a man that neither side views as particularly formidable. But this does not mean that he is going to lose. President Obama is clearly vulnerable, and if I were in a position to give advice to Romney and his advisors, I would say something like this:
“Based on what I have seen, you guys have a good understanding of what you need to do. Right from the start, you have been hammering President Obama on the economy and, to a lesser degree, on the deficit. And instead of laying out clearly defined ways of fixing these problems, you have generally been pretty vague, sticking with the tried and true ideas of cutting taxes, reducing regulations, and stopping those liberal Democrats from spending so much money. During the Republican nomination process, you did a terrific job of being nice and steady, sticking to the message, and allowing a steady stream of freakish competitors to rise and fall. Most of the time, you allowed competitors to be victims of their own stupidity or of skeletons in their closets. But when it was necessary, you hammered them with effective attack ads. Since you realized early that you could not get voters excited about you, you put the focus on the negative qualities of your opponents.
Against President Obama, this is still the formula for success. This election must be a referendum on his handling of the economy and on his terrible record of massive deficit spending. So the less that you say about your specific plans, the better. Based on what happened in the recent Republican convention, it is clear that you still understand this. You told a beautiful narrative of self-reliance, freedom, and American exceptionalism. And more importantly, you laid all of our nation’s problems at the feet of the Obama administration. From watching the convention, you would think that the Bush administration had never happened and that the United States was bathing in prosperity until Obama came along to screw it up. Achieving such a level of historical amnesia in your supporters is an accomplishment worthy of respect and admiration.
But there have been some strange decisions and moments in the campaign that make me wonder what you were thinking. First, you chose Paul Ryan as your running mate. Now, I do understand that you needed to do something to get the Republican base a bit excited. The problem, however, is that Paul Ryan is one of those rare politicians who has actually put specific ideas on the table describing what needs to be done to cut federal spending. And not only that, he wants to make significant alterations to Medicare, the most important and popular program for the elderly, who happen to be the most powerful interest group in the United States. When the VP announcement came, you could almost hear Democrats licking their chops. They had finally found that issue that could get Obama over the hump. And health care, an issue that seemed likely to hurt Obama in the election, could once again become his friend.
Had you forgotten that this election must be a referendum on President Obama, not on the specific proposals of an actual fiscal conservative? Apparently, you have not completely lost sight of this simple fact. Paul Ryan, in his acceptance speech, did not carry out a Clinton-like lecture, filled with facts and figures, laying out a specific path for future prosperity. Instead, he focused the attacks on Obama. And while his facts may have been a bit off at times, at least he stuck to the narrative and the political strategy. And the less that Ryan is forced to discuss the specifics of his plans, and the more you can slightly distance yourself from them, the better it is for your campaign. Remember, you aren’t going to win by getting people to vote for you. You must get them to vote against Obama.
But then a couple of days ago, there you were, stating your opinion about attacks that had just taken place in Egypt and Libya. The facts were not yet in, but you could not resist the temptation to imply that Obama’s weak, apologetic leadership had contributed to the death of an ambassador and was an affront to the principle of free speech. Did you not learn anything from that foreign trip a few months back that was designed to show off your foreign policy credentials? Let’s face it; you don’t have any foreign policy credentials. And the more that you opened your mouth, the more you got into trouble. So now, by opening your big mouth once again, you have opened the door for reporters to hit you with specific questions about American policy in the Middle East.
Have you actually forgotten George W. Bush? Do you have any vague memories of bad intelligence, thousands of dead Americans, and a nation occupied by American soldiers that was on the verge of sectarian civil war? If foreign policy becomes a major issue in this campaign, it will bring back bad memories for many Americans, particularly those few, undecided independents who are currently the main prize in this election. President Obama, whether justified or not, is rated pretty highly by Americans for his handling of foreign policy. So as the Clinton people once said, “it’s the economy stupid.” The numbers are still pretty dismal, and Americans care more about their economic situation than about events overseas. So keep the conversation focused on a topic that you at least know something about. The Middle East is a messy, complicated, dangerous place, and the consequences of the Arab Spring are still unfolding in unpredictable ways. And the last time that this country elected a Republican with little to no knowledge of foreign affairs, it did not turn out so well. So for God’s sake, don’t do anything to remind them. Historical memory runs short in the United States, so you might as well take advantage of it.
And when those conservative SuperPacs and other exotic political organizations start stepping up the nasty, personal attacks on Obama, continue that uniquely political art of not endorsing what they say while not condemning their accusations either. On a conscious level, most independents will reject the conspiracies. But as advertisers have known for decades, you can impact consumer behavior by slipping images into the subconscious of the public. So the harsh ads can still be useful. But don’t make any more jokes about how you have never been questioned about your birth certificate. There are plenty of other people out there – with plenty of money – to do the dirty work.
So don’t worry. In spite of everything, the election is still there for the taking. Just stick to the damn program.”