Dear Governor Romney,
I am sure you are being deluged with advice, but I hope mine is worth hearing.
You have been running a campaign focused on the economy, especially jobs. It therefore must be frustrating for you that President Obama, with his poor record, seems to retain a small edge in the race.
I wonder, however, if there isn’t a missing element in your campaign. Yes, you ran a successful business, which created jobs, and you have other impressive accomplishments. It is a good record, but it doesn’t really demonstrate an ability to pull our nation’s economy out of its slump. To be sure, it demonstrates more such ability than President Obama has demonstrated. Nonetheless, it’s one thing to identify a problem, say you care about it, and even list some steps you would take to address it. It’s another thing to convince people that you can really do the job. Many people wonder, and not without reason, whether any president can really do this job.
So what else might you do? I suggest that your focus on the economy and jobs would be strengthened by more detailed discussions of policies you would enact, and also of related issues, notably Obamacare and Medicare. The assertion that you are more competent than President Obama strikes many people as merely that—an assertion. It would be supported by your speaking in more detail about a range of financial issues.
Bill Clinton’s speech was, in my opinion, the most effective one at either convention. I don’t need to tell you that much of it was dishonest. But Clinton offered just the right level of detail—enough to make people feel he really knew what he was talking about, but not so much as to make people’s eyes glaze over. You know these details as well as he does; I suggest you talk about them more often. It’s not easy to combine discussion of detail with a large moral vision, as Clinton did; few people have his political gifts (though in terms of actual governing, he was perhaps more fortunate than skilled). But you’re not running against Clinton. When it comes to combining policy details with a vision for our country, I believe you can do better than the tired and negative Barack Obama we confront in 2012. But you need to say more and perhaps take some chances. Talk about jobs, yes, but also about specific policies and the effect they would have, and about a vision of our economy and society which makes it plausible that your administration will really cause job creation, and that President Obama’s has hindered it and will continue to do so.
You have said that you intend to repeal Obamacare. I was glad to hear that, but I think people would be impressed by a more detailed explanation of why Obamacare is a step in the wrong direction, how it is sure to drive up costs without improving quality, how a market with some regulation works much better than boards of bureaucrats trying to set prices, and how Obamacare has made businesses less likely to hire people because they face greater expenses in doing so. It would also be helpful if you spoke simply and clearly about how you would replace Obamacare. You might choose one theme on which to focus, such as leveling the playing field by ending tax discrimination against privately purchased health care and against health care as distinguished from health insurance; you might explain how Obamacare doubles down on a system which produces overconsumption of insurance, unnecessary bureaucracy and paperwork, and higher costs. All this would be helpful in terms of articulating an alternative vision on health care, but also, and perhaps more importantly, it would demonstrate understanding and ability in economic matters generally. It would put more meat on the bones of your assertion of greater competence.
Regarding Medicare, as Paul Ryan says, Republicans can (and must) win this debate. But we haven’t done so yet. Here too, more details are needed. People should know when Medicare will go bankrupt if it is not reformed, and what percentage of the economy it will consume in a generation or two if it is supported by other revenues. They should know that your plan preserves traditional Medicare as an option even for those under 55, although you think other options will give future seniors more choices and more money. People should know that those other options will be regulated, so that seniors will not be exploited by clever operators. Moreover, you must rebut forcefully, vigorously, and repeatedly the claim Bill Clinton made in his speech, that Obama is somehow strengthening Medicare by taking $716 billion out of it. Paul Ryan also needs to rebut Clinton’s claim that he supported Obama’s approach. (It’s a huge difference whether that money was counted as future savings for the Medicare trust fund, or diverted away to pay for a new program!) Your campaign has the money and the time to ensure every voter knows that Obama took $716 billion out of Medicare to pay for Obamacare, that the claim that this will affect providers but not beneficiaries is absurd, and that you never supported doing anything like this.
It is still possible to convince voters that you will do a better job with the economy than President Obama has, but telling people you’re better qualified isn’t enough. To some extent, as writers are often told, you need to show it, not tell it. And one way to show it is to demonstrate competence and mastery in discussing a range of economic issues. Give voters the feeling that you really know how the economy operates, how the pieces fit together, what works and what doesn’t.
I will add a few smaller points. I think it helps when you talk about China, and I suggest you do so more often. China has been manipulating its currency for a long time, to the detriment of our workers and our economy; it is preposterous that no administration so far has forcefully responded. Why don’t we institute a 25 percent tariff on Chinese goods unless and until it allows its currency to float freely on international markets?
Second, the GOP has been talking a lot about tax cuts for a long time. While this is an important issue, our discussion of it has perhaps reached the point of diminishing returns politically. If we start talking more about China, about Medicare, about replacing Obamacare with something better, about growth through reducing regulation and red tape, about Keystone, people will be impressed.
Third, Obama obviously gains from the claim that your tax cuts will mostly benefit the rich and will increase the deficit. Might you be more specific about some of the loopholes you would close to pay for those tax cuts? I suggest you start with the ability of people in hedge funds and private equity firms to declare income as capital gains. (Even I, the president of a small financial services firm, resent that one.) Voters this year seem to feel they confront a choice between the candidate of welfare and the candidate of Wall Street. Anything you can do to recast yourself as the candidate of Main Street will help.
Finally, I hope you don’t back off on your criticism of Obamacare. In my opinion, the requirement that insurers write policies for all comers is a grave mistake—it encourages people to wait until they are sick to buy policies, and thereby forces people who behave responsibly to pay for those who don’t. Maybe you disagree about that. But to weaken your criticism of Obamacare at this point might make it seem to people that you’re not really strongly opposed, and that the Democrats didn’t do so badly in ramming it through Congress.
I wish you luck. It is important that you win this race—not merely in terms of jobs now, but also in terms of the self-reliance and character of the American people in the future.
Peter J. Hansen
Peter J. Hansen is president of Hansen Capital Management, Inc., in Lexington, Virginia. He last wrote forTHE WEEKLY STANDARD on Occupy Wall Street and Obamacare, and is also an independent scholar and teacher of political philosophy.