The news this morning is filled with stories about in-fighting in the Romney campaign or new promises of either a more culture war based campaign or one where Romney finally gets specific on his key policy proposals. It’s all standard for when the media and a campaign itself believe it is losing.
But don’t be distracted by the various plot lines. Romney’s core problem is this: the campaign’s strategy has always been that the economy itself will defeat Obama. So the economy defeats Barack Obama. And Mitt Romney is the can-do business man who the country turns to. In other words, Romney takes the presidency by default. This is hardly a crazy strategy with unemployment stuck above 8% and an economy that has actually decelerated over the course of the year. But it does not appear to be working. That’s the key.
The race to date has been characterized by a remarkable stability. Going back a year and a half President Obama has held a small — sometimes extremely small — lead over Gov. Romney. Like a distance runner coming into the final lap, the logical moment — the moment the Romney campaign was banking on — for Romney to make his move was at the convention. Only that didn’t happen. In fact, at least for the moment Obama seems to have broken out into a new lead. That’s left Romney with a broken theory of the campaign and an urgent need for a new strategy.
Romney would likely not be in this position if he were not personally unpopular. But he is. Polls have consistently shown that President Obama is more personally popular than his general political support and Romney is substantially less personally popular than his.
So what’s left? The hard right angle has inherent dangers. First, Romney’s lack of credibility as a culture war guy means he and his campaign will need to go for the kind of cartoonish and scalding gambits that virtually always get you in trouble with the middle of the electorate. George W. Bush could say ‘life’ and ‘Jesus’ a few times and evangelicals would swoon. That’s a key thing that made him so formidable politically. He could juice the evangelical/cultural base without really scaring middle of the road voters.
It won’t be nearly that easy for Romney. He’s not one of them and they know it. There are equally great problems with the primal scream, ‘vet Obama’ approach demanded by some on the right. I’ll get to those in a separate post.
That leaves us with the new demand that Romney finally get specific with his various policy proposals and run the sort of Movement Conservative campaign the Ryan pick seemed to foreshadow. Again, not easy. Romney hasn’t been cagey about nearly all his policy proposals by accident. Whatever their policy merits they’re unpopular. His tax plans call for dramatic tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and substantial tax increases for the middle class. That’s a very hard sell in a system in which middle income people still get to vote. The initial Bush tax cuts were designed to give everyone tax cuts, albeit leaving the most generous ones at the top. That was smart politics. Cutting at the top while you have tax increases for the vast majority of voters is a sure loser.
Turning Medicare into a voucher program? Not popular.
Republicans can say Obama represents socialism and a slow descent into the awfulness of the German welfare state until they’re blue in the face. But voters get that Obama is pushing a basically pragmatic approach to taxes and spending. Polling has always shown this. His approach to social insurance programs is more popular as is his support for letting the Bush tax cuts expire for upper income earners. A campaign focused on actual policy details would only drive this point home. Don’t take my word for it — listen to the Romney campaign itself. The refusal to offer any detailed policy proposals speaks for itself.
As I’ve written many times, every losing campaign becomes somehow by definition one run by idiots; winners are geniuses. Regardless of whatever else happens, watch the fundamentals. The Romney campaign has been based on a single strategy — one that seems not to have worked. If running as a culture warrior or Jack Kemp was such a hot idea they would have tried it already. Coming up with a new strategy against a president who remains personally popular with six weeks to go is a daunting place to be.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.