Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pivot to Policy

In preparation for its November match-up against Mitt Romney, you can be sure that, just as it has spent many hours reviewing Ted Kennedy's 1994 playbook against Romney, the Obama campaign has also spent plenty of time going over the 2004 Bush playbook against John Kerry.  John Kerry made a fatal tactical misstep: in casting himself as the blank antithesis of George W. Bush, he gave the Bush campaign plenty of negative space within which it could project its own image of Kerry as an effete flip-flopper.  And that projection worked.  President Bush barely squeaked out a victory (a little over a percentage-point swing would have meant a Kerry victory), but it was a victory nevertheless.

Now the Obama campaign seems to be using a two-pronged (and potentially self-contradictory) attack against Romney: he's either a malicious rich guy who wants to lay you off (Kennedy v. Romney) or a nullity who stands for nothing more than his own ambition (Bush v. Kerry).  Either way, Obama's your man.

The Romney campaign has long premised its eventual victory over Obama on the economic numbers: poor economy, Obama loses.  Operating on this premise, its greatest fear seems to be something like the following.  Since Obama can't win on the economy, the only way he can win is if Romney loses by embracing too many controversial policies or alienating some members of the conservative coalition or by making this election too much about him and not about the incumbent.  This strategy has many merits, but it also risks giving the president plenty of room to project certain policies onto Romney.  If Romney hopes in some ways to be the generic Republican, Obama also seeks to associate Romney with some of the most unpopular policies and effects of recent Republican governance.

And these attacks may be gaining some traction.  Obama's polling over the past month has bobbed in the high 40s, giving him a slight edge over Romney.

Now is certainly not the time to panic in Boston.  The economy still is in rough shape.  Unemployment remains at extended highs in a way unprecedented in the modern political era.  Deficit spending is through the roof.  The president's signature accomplishments are toxic for many in the general public.  Foreign affairs remain troubled.  Many in the center who voted for Obama are now leaning toward Romney or are undecided.

All these things augur well for Romney, and yet fears of the Kerry trap remain.  The recent bounce in Obama's polling has only exacerbated worries on the right that Romney's campaign has lost control of the narrative.  Some of these fears are overblown, but it might be worthwhile to consider how Romney could better feed the beast of the modern media machine.  The media is not going to talk about how bad the employment situation is or how miserable the economy is for the next two months.

In his convention speech and at various stump speeches, Romney has hammered home five key strategies for economic restoration: unlocking America's energy potential, trade reform, improving the skills of the American workforce, moving toward a balanced budget, and small-business-oriented regulatory reform (part of which may involve some tax reform).  Those five ideas represent a germ of policy discussion for the Romney campaign.

So let's build out from that germ to consider what topics the Romney campaign could talk about in order to drive the media narrative away from a focus on gaffes and the horse-race.
  • Financial reform:  Romney has already edged in the direction of banking reform beyond just repealing Dodd-Frank.  A burgeoning chorus on the right (at places like AEI, the Weekly Standard, and elsewhere) is embracing banking reform as a key one for economic vitalization, so taking on financial reform could be an opportunity to appeal to both the right and the center.  A policy that rallies your base while also speaking to the middle is political gold.
  • Trade:  Romney has made trade reform one of the central tenets of his five-point pitch for economic restoration.  Now is not the time to fear to speak at more length about it.  The middle and working classes have seen what poor and essentially anti-market trade policies have meant for their economic fortunes over the past few years.  Let them know about the alternative: a policy that makes the most of access to foreign markets while also ensuring market-oriented competition.
  • Health-care: Romney has already committed to repealing and replacing Obamacare, but recent statements have suggested that certain aspects of Obamacare might also be found in a Romney administration's approach to health-care.  It might be helpful for the campaign to lay out in a clear, focused way certain key policy levers of a Romney health-care reform---dealing with issues such as preexisting conditions, young persons' access to their parents' health-care plan, tax options for health-care and so forth.  The pre-Obamacare health-care system was far from perfect, and many Americans are not anxious to return to that earlier status quo.  By speaking in more detail about health-care, Romney can reassure Americans that he would do his best to improve health-care in the United States.
  • Energy:  Energy is a promising topic.  Americans feel the pain at the pump and at the increased cost of goods.  Moreover, the Obama administration has left itself open to attack on this issue.  Let Americans know how a Romney administration would make the most of US natural resources and encourage the creation of a renewed energy infrastructure.  It's more than just drilling for oil in more places: it's supporting a variety of types of energy harvesting (from solar to nuclear to wind and others) that can make US industry more competitive and improve the living standards of Americans.
  • The Middle Class:  Romney's campaign has recently been emphasizing the middle class.  Perhaps it might elaborate on why middle class restoration is important for the nation as a whole.  Voters are used to platitudes about the middle class, but, if Romney can explain why this middle class restoration is so important, voters might become more convinced that his plans will actually help the middle class and advance the economy.  Romney would be viewed as offering more than lip-service---he would be laying out a general set of principles.
It's true that, as some Romney advisors have reportedly said, big ideas move the electorate.  But when voters hear both sides pledging to restore economic prosperity, it will be the texture of policy differences that make the difference.  Voters have heard failed promises a plenty from politicians before.  Especially when many voters hold Republicans somewhat responsible for the crisis of 2008, blithe assertions that the next four years will be better than the past decade will not always be immediately believed.

We might note that one of the times Romney ran the strongest against Obama (and the only time he has led Obama in the Real Clear Politics polling average) was in the fall of 2011, the season of the 59-point economic plan.  Romney has the tendencies of the wonk, and the appearance of focused (not amorphous) competence is attractive to the electorate of a nation roiled by crisis after crisis.  When Kerry tried to run as the not-Bush, he lost.  When various Republicans tried to run as the not-Romney, they lost.  Romney likely cannot afford to be merely the not-Obama.  He must represent another way forward.

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