How Mitt Romney lost his mojo: he forgot the economy | James Antle

3 Oct

Mitt Romney is throwing in the towel. Not on the presidential race, mind you. But in recent weeks, he has tacitly abandoned his strategy of making this election a simple referendum on President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy.

The New York Times reports that “rather than focusing on Mr Obama, they plan to stress that voters need to make a choice between two men with different visions of the world.” This means “Mr Romney intends to hit the White House with a series of arguments – on energy, healthcare, taxes, spending and a more direct attack on Mr Obama’s foreign policy record”, rather than focusing like a laser beam on jobs and the economy.

In other words, Romney is now abandoning his framing of the campaign in favor of Obama’s. Why?

To some extent, this is because Romney’s monomaniac focus on the economy didn’t work as well as Bill Clinton’s in 1992. Romney’s vast personal wealth and the specifics of his business background – private equity and venture capitalism – have made it more difficult for him to seem in touch with the concerns of those with financial struggles. Second, the recession and the financial meltdown both started under George W Bush, with whom Romney bears some resemblance on policy, complicating the argument that Obama is solely responsible.

A presidential candidate also needs to have detailed policy positions on the whole range of issues facing the country, not just economics. Moreover, it would be political malpractice to ignore the president’s (mis)handling of Libya. But with this caveat: a campaign needs an overarching theme.

The biggest problem is that Romney simply did a poor job making the economic argument. He unveiled a 59-point plan that was too long and unfocused to resonate. Then, when it was distilled to five points, it was still forgettable – even if you aren’t Rick Perry. The rest of the details were supposed to be filled in by his choice of running mate. But the Romney tax plan isn’t exactly Paul Ryan’s, and the Democrats gleefully attacked Ryan’s Medicare plan.

That was as far as the positive case for Romney as an economic problem-solver went. Even when Romney confined his critique of Obama to the economy, he was all over the place: China, taxes, monetary policy, deficits, the unemployment rate among women. He did not establish a convincing connection between troubling statistics and Obama’s policies.

More often, Romney simply assumed that the self-evidently bad economy was Obama’s fault and reason enough that he should be elected.

Yet, there remains a huge, undeniable gap between Obama’s promises and his results. In some cases, he is essentially repeating the same goals this year that he failed to achieve in his first term. Some of this over-promising came wrapped in hyperbolic, almost messianic rhetoric.

Romney should stick to pointing to the disconnect between Obama’s words and deeds, contrasting “hope and change” with slow growth and net job losses. He must note that Obama’s deficits will lead inexorably to higher taxes, even for some of the “47%”. Don’t let Obama get away with “created or saved” metrics or comparisons to Bush. Compare the price tag of the Obama administration with the tangible results.

None of that is good enough if Romney fails to establish himself as a suitable alternative. Romney should turn his record at Bain, on the Olympics and as governor of Massachusetts into a complete story: he is someone with expertise in turning around financially troubled entities – and that is exactly what Washington needs right now.

It may not be an inspiring sales pitch, but it is the one that worked in his only successful political venture. Romney didn’t get elected in Massachusetts because voters identified with him, felt comfortable with his wealth or even particularly liked him. He convinced them that he could come in and manage the government’s financial affairs better than the people who were currently in charge.

It’s an opening that Romney has. He can accuse the bipartisan political class in Washington of mission creep and say that they have lost focus on their fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders – in this case, the taxpayers. He can say that in the business world, a chief executive who promised much and delivered little would have to be fired.

The Romney-Ryan ticket has made many of these arguments in the past, of course. But it has not done so in any sustained way and has not stuck with any of them long enough for them to really permeate the public consciousness.

This one-two punch has the benefits of being as accurate as anything is in politics, while also connecting with the concerns of voters who like Obama personally but aren’t satisfied with what he has done as president. The campaign is, instead, unfolding in a way that allows them to stay with the president they like over the challenger they find off-putting.

At this late date, it’s not guaranteed to work. But it is a better bet than throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.

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