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Dukakis, Kerry ... Romney?

9:50 AM, Jul 5, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Remember Michael Dukakis (1988) and John Kerry (2004)? It's possible to lose a winnable presidential election to a vulnerable incumbent in the White House (or in the case of 1988, a sitting vice president). So, speaking of losing candidates from Massachusetts: Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he's running?

Cartoon of Mitt Romney

Image Credit: Nate Beeler

Adopting a prevent defense when it's only the second quarter and you're not even ahead is dubious enough as a strategy. But his campaign's monomaniacal belief that it's about the economy and only the economy, and that they need to keep telling us stupid voters that it's only about the economy, has gone from being an annoying tick to a dangerous self-delusion.

As Frank Cannon and Jeff Bell, among others, have pointed out, the economy is not an automatic path to victory. It does provide a favorable backdrop for this year's campaign. But what are voters to think when they hear the GOP nominee say, as he did yesterday to CBS’s Jan Crawford, "As long as I continue to speak about the economy, I'm going to win"? That they're dopes who don't know the economy's bad, but as long as the Romney campaign keeps instructing them that it is bad, they'll react correctly and vote the incumbent out of office? 

The economy is of course important. But voters want to hear what Romney is going to do about the economy. He can "speak about" how bad the economy is all he wants—though Americans are already well aware of the economy's problems—but doesn't the content of what Romney has to say matter? What is his economic growth agenda? His deficit reform agenda? His health care reform agenda? His tax reform agenda? His replacement for Dodd-Frank? No need for any of that, I suppose the Romney campaign believes. Just need to keep on "speaking about the economy."  

The Romney campaign will answer that they're imitating Bill Clinton in 1992, who famously focused on "the economy, stupid." But Bill Clinton was a full spectrum presidential candidate, with detailed policy proposals on welfare reform, health care, education, and foreign policy. He also made real efforts to convince the voters he was different from the losing Democratic candidates who preceded him ("a new kind of Democrat," "ending welfare as we know it," a hawkish-sounding foreign policy, Sister Souljah, etc.). So far, the Romney campaign doesn't resemble the Clinton campaign. It seems to be following more comfortably in the tradition of the five post-Cold War Republican presidential candidates who preceded Romney. They received 37.5 percent, 40.7 percent, 47.9 percent, 50.7 percent, and 45.7 percent of the vote, respectively. The average GOP presidential vote in these last five elections was 44.5 percent. In the last three, it was 48.1 percent. Give Romney an extra point for voter disillusionment with Obama, and a half-point for being better financed than his predecessors. It still strikes me as a path to (narrow) defeat.

By the way, Romney made his comment about speaking about the economy on July 4th—a date that might suggest there's more to the American experiment than the economy.   

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