I don’t take what Bill Kristol says as gospel. But that he could say what he said this morning is a measure of just how badly things have gone to this point for Mitt Romney — how much it’s becoming conventional wisdom that Romney has already failed. Kristol said that Romney cannot make the election about Obama’s first term because it’s gone reasonably well. He needs to make it a referendum on the next four years.
In case you think I’m mischaracterizing Kristol’s argument, here’s the extended quote …
“They need to focus on the next four years,” he said. “If this election is just about the last four years, that’s a muddy verdict. Bush was president during the financial meltdown. The Obama team has turned that around pretty well. The Clinton speech at the convention was very important in that way — how horrible was it four years ago.”
“He’s got to make it a referendum on the choice of the next four years, and explain what Obama would do over the next four years that would be bad for the country, and what he would do that would be good for the country.”
So, the new message is: Barack Obama did reasonably well in his first term but don’t vote for him again. Because it will be awful.
That’s a challenging sell.
Of course, Kristol is saying the argument should be made on ideological grounds, raise the contest to a choice between ideologies. But this is almost never how an incumbent president gets turned out of office, regardless of which ideologies are in play.
I think it’s basically a waste of time to indulge this the argument about whether this is basically a center-right or center-left country. But on the key policy questions this campaign has turned on — tax fairness, social insurance (Medicare/Social Security) and foreign policy — Romney’s positions are not very popular. That’s why up until now — wisely — he’s generally not wanted to talk about them. And on top of that, I see little evidence the public has an appetite for an ideologue of any variety.
All the suggestions amount to getting Romney to run against Obama on really the worst possible footing. We had a referendum on Obama, first. But that didn’t take. That’s been followed by a referendum on Romney, which the Obama campaign managed to engineer and which has gone terribly for Romney. So now to the get conversation off Romney, who’s unpopular, the Romney campaign must make it a referendum on conservative ideology which in key respects is not popular. And all this while the country’s objective economic condition remains feeble and should give a challenger more than enough to work with.
My own take — what I think will seem obvious in two months — is that at some point over the last couple months it became obvious that 8+% unemployment simply wasn’t enough to drive Obama out of office. And once that became clear, Romney simply had no Plan B.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.