The electoral map has taken a significant turn for the worse for Mitt Romney, with swing state polling all heading in the wrong direction for the Republican nominee. While it is too early for Team Obama to begin spiking the ball Romney just cannot seem to put together a cogent message, and is truly strained and awkward on the campaign trail. The latest statement to cause confusion is Romney pointing to his Massachusetts Health Care Plan as proof that he has empathy, as he offered universal coverage, and actually got 100% of the state’s children covered. Does that mean he now favors the federal health care (CHIPS) program for children?
Obviously there has been much hand wringing with Republican elites, with Peggy Noonan and Bill Kristol in particular coming down pretty hard on the campaign, and the candidate. Noonan, in the Wall Street Journal:
It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one. It’s not big, it’s not brave, it’s not thoughtfully tackling great issues. It’s always been too small for the moment. All the activists, party supporters and big donors should be pushing for change. People want to focus on who at the top is least constructive and most responsible. Fine, but Mitt Romney is no puppet: He chooses who to listen to. An intervention is in order. “Mitt, this isn’t working.”
Ouch! Kristol has said that the Romney strategy is all wrong in that his attempt to make this a “referendum” election in which he says nothing but we must replace Barack Obama is failing, and that it is a “choice” election, in which voters will choose which vision offered for the future is best for the country.
Which means Mitt Romney should probably stop saying, as he did yesterday in Colorado, “The American people cannot afford four more years of Barack Obama, and that’s why I am going to become president of the United States!” He should say instead, “Paul Ryan and I have a pro-growth, pro-reform, pro-opportunity agenda for America—and we look forward to having the honor of carrying out that agenda over the next four years.”
Kristol’s complaint has been echoed among conservative pundits for some time now. Romney needs to offer a specific vision, and get into policy details, and offer that real “choice” to the American public. I tend to agree, but I really wonder how Romney does that when the two centerpieces of his campaign, tax cuts, and the repeal of ObamaCare, are riddled with math errors and conflicts with prior positions. His tax position, up to this very minute, is producing conflicting statements from the campaign. His obvious gaffe on the 47% issue has only added to his difficulties.
Some non-conservative pundits have also commented. Ron Brownstein over at National Journal attributes Romney’s current problems to his right tack in the Republican primaries.
Romney’s biggest general-election problem is that he did not believe he could beat a GOP primary field with no competitor more formidable than Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich without tacking sharply right on key issues. Romney repeatedly took policy positions that minimized his risks during the spring but have multiplied his challenges in the fall. His fate isn’t sealed, but the choices he made in the primaries have left him with a path to victory so narrow that it might daunt Indiana Jones. “To secure the nomination, they made … decisions about immigration, tax cuts, and a whole host of other issues that had no strategic vision,” said John Weaver, a senior strategist for John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “So he’s now trapped demographically and doesn’t even seem to understand it.”
Brownstein is, in my opinion, only half right. Romney did indeed take positions that most felt would be untenable in a general election. I believe his campaign recognized that as evidenced by the etch a sketch comment by Eric Fehrnstrom. But should Romney have moderated his positions before winning the nomination? Brownstein seems to forget that on at least two occasions conservatives began to rally to opponents, such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, whose appeal was driven by some hard right rhetoric. Romney needed, in this Republican Party, to out-bid these candidates with the right, and he did what he needed to do in that process. But conservative suspicion of Romney has prevented the etch-a-sketch makeover, and he has been unable to offer more moderate positions. Romney, at heart, is a moderate technocrat very comfortable in corporate board rooms, but much less comfortable on the campaign trail. His forced “everyday” persona only makes him look more ridiculous.
I think Fareed Zakaria over at the Post has it right on the money. Romney is in a straight jacket that has the Republican brand all over it.
The Republican Party has imposed a new kind of political correctness on its leaders. They cannot speak certain words (taxes) or speculate about certain ideas (immigration amnesty) because these are forbidden. Romney has tried to run a campaign while not running afoul of his party’s strictures. As a result, he has twisted himself into a pretzel, speaking vacuously, avoiding specifics and refusing to provide any serious plans for the most important issues of the day. That’s a straitjacket that even Peggy Noonan’s eloquence cannot get him out of.
Romney has the debates with the President as possibly his last hope to turn this thing around. But he needs to win the debate with himself before he can win the debate with the President.