Now that Mitt Romney has sewn up the Republican presidential nomination, the general election battle has begun. Team Obama obviously recognizes this; since Romney basically sealed the deal after the Wisconsin primary in April, the president and his team have launched a series of attacks designed to distract the country from the real stakes of this election.
This raises an obvious question: What should Romney do? Many commentators have correctly suggested that he not take Obama’s bait on items like the “war on women.” There is no need to play the game by the rules Obama wishes to set. However, that only explains what Romney should not do. Is there a clear, positive strategy for him to follow?
There is. An examination of this year’s electoral landscape, relevant polling on President Obama, and the history of how Republicans win the presidency shows a pretty straightforward path for Romney.
Fortunately for Romney—in contrast to nominees like Bob Dole in 1996 and Walter Mondale in 1984—he does not have to convince people that their eyes are lying to them, that the state of the union is actually worse than it appears. People know that times are tough right now; they do not need Romney to convince them of that.
This is also President Obama’s key vulnerability. His job approval has been under 50 percent since the end of 2009, with only a few temporary exceptions; worse, his approval on the big issues is well into negative territory, with solid majorities disapproving of his handling of the economy, the deficit, and health care.
Romney’s essential task is thus to persuade people to act on their convictions. A majority of the American electorate is disappointed—one way or another—with the performance of this president. Romney just needs to convince them that things will not improve in a second Obama term.
It is important to note that almost all of the electorate is already locked in. Over the last 25 years, the numbers of core Democrats and Republicans have been roughly equal, such that it is a very rare event in the modern era for either side to fall under 45 percent of the vote. There really is only 10 percent of the public up for grabs. This small slice of the electorate must be Romney’s focus.
This points to the paths he should not pursue. Conservatives are deeply frustrated with President Obama and view him as aloof, arrogant, and unqualified. Polling, however, indicates that the middle of the country sees things differently. They like the president; they think he sympathizes with their plight, and they see him as a credible leader. So Romney should eschew any and all ad hominem attacks; with the president’s personal favorability ratings above 50 percent, it would be a waste of time.
However, these same voters do think Obama is more liberal than they are. This is Romney’s opening, for an unabashed liberal has not won the White House since 1964. Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama all secured victory by running, in some form or another, against or at least away from dogmatic liberalism. People nowadays simply do not trust the government very much—the country has generally been suspicious of big government for a couple of generations—which means that appearing to be a liberal is not a good way to win a national election.
Romney therefore can take the top three issues the country is concerned about—the economy, the deficit, and health care—and connect the people’s disappointment with Obama to their perception of him as a liberal. In other words, Romney needs to explain why things have remained so sour during the Obama tenure. That story is really a simple one: Things are bad three years after the worst of the recession because Obama’s policies have been too liberal to succeed.
On the economy, the stimulus failed because the solution Obama offered was premised on growing the government. That is no way to restore economic health.
On the deficit, Romney can argue that it is out of control because liberals cannot help but run up a deficit. They like to grow government, and so Obama has spent, spent, and spent without paying for it, resulting in an enormous deficit. Worse, his big spending failed to jumpstart the economy, which means tax revenues have remained depressed.
On health care, Obama promised to solve this key structural ailment via government activism. But Obamacare is only going to make matters worse—by hiking the cost of care, it will make it harder for employers to add new workers; it will mean less money in the pockets of average citizens; and it will exacerbate runaway federal deficits that depress future economic growth.
So the general idea is simple. Obama has failed because he subscribes to an outdated, ineffective governing philosophy, one that the country has consistently rejected for almost half a century—and one that is now failing throughout the world. And worse, Obama ignored the warning sent by voters in the 2010 midterms. That was a clarion call for Obama to tack back to the center as Clinton did in 1995. Obama ignored it. Instead, he doubled down on failed policies. So there is no reason to expect things to be any different in a second Obama term.
This has to be the message Romney carries around the country. It is the best and most persuasive way to connect public dissatisfaction with the state of the nation, disappointment with Obama’s handling of the biggest issues, and the widespread belief that the president is too liberal. If he can convince the average swing voter that Obama is too far to the left to fix the big problems the country faces, he is almost home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But “almost” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. How does Romney close the deal? It can only be by promising to do the things that Obama cannot do. And for that, he has to stretch deep into the history of the Republican party, to understand why this coalition, whose original purpose was to stop the spread of slavery, has endured for 150 years.
If the core Republican philosophy were a constellation, it would be anchored by three stars: William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, and, above all, Ronald Reagan. Each of them articulated the basic beliefs of the Republican party in ways that led to decisive victories. McKinley promised voters in 1896 that he was, as one supporter put it, the “advance agent of prosperity.” Coolidge famously proclaimed that the “business of America is business.” And Reagan’s economic policy is so famous and enduring that the party faithful have embraced it as “Reaganomics.”
Romney can follow their examples. All three of these leaders reminded the country that the single most progressive force in the world is American private enterprise. That is the great engine of prosperity in the United States, and ultimately the means by which we become the “more perfect union” that the preamble to the Constitution promises. None of these presidents promised a laissez-faire state of nature, contrary to the claims of the Democrats then and now. They understood that the government has a positive role to play in encouraging private enterprise—not for the sake of profits for the few, but to assure growth that lifts the entire populace.
Romney has to articulate these core ideals. He has to tell Americans that government is not the solution to our problems, and that we ourselves hold those solutions. We can fix the economy, tackle the deficit, and improve our health care system. The job of the government is to facilitate this, not to do it for us.
Romney has to offer a simple justification for every policy he proposes, namely: This will unleash the great engine of the American economy and help us all in the long run.
And he might keep in mind the experience in Europe, where the left on that continent has managed to turn the concept of “austerity” into a kind of four-letter word. This was not a hard thing to do. During times of economic crisis, people do not want to see the government cutting back simply to balance its own books. Instead, they want to see the government do more. For liberals, this of course means ever higher deficit spending. But for conservatives in the McKinley-Coolidge-Reagan tradition, it means smart deregulation to help businesses grow, tax cuts that foster growth, a trade policy that benefits ailing American industries, and so on. Put another way, Romney has to promise a vigorous government, but not one that seeks to tax, spend, and regulate; rather, it should be actively seeking ways to help private citizens solve their own problems.
This is where Romney’s experience can play a valuable role. Liberal Democrats, naturally, think working in venture capital is a bad thing—unless, of course, they are accepting campaign contributions from those very same “vultures”—but Romney has a positive story to tell about his time at Bain Capital, one that syncs with the broader narrative he wants to articulate about a Romney presidency. The value of Bain for the Romney candidacy is that a lot of what he did there was give promising entrepreneurs the capital they needed to make their businesses work. That’s exactly what he wants to do with the whole country—not fix the problems himself, but give the people the tools they need to fix them.
Ditto the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Romney himself did not put the Olympics on—the good folks of Utah did that. Romney was there to help organize and channel their initiative so as to make the whole spectacle a success. If people think Romney can do for the country what he did for the Salt Lake City Olympics, it can help him in November.
As the Romney campaign puts forward this message, the Obama team will respond with all sorts of non sequiturs that are meant to divert Romney. They see the exact same polling data—they know that Obama is unpopular on the big issues, that people think he is too liberal, and that voters are inclined to make a change. Obama is going to try to get Romney to talk about gay marriage or student loans or the “war on women” because any day that Romney spends not delivering his core message is a good day for Obama. While the Romney team has to be ready to respond to attacks that could tarnish his image, the candidate himself should keep steering the discussion back to his winning issues.
And for good measure, Team Romney should hang in every room of their headquarters the old James Carville slogans that were the guiding light of the Clinton campaign in 1992, with one additional point as a nod to the Ross Perot candidacy:
Change vs. more of the same.
The economy, stupid.
Don’t forget health care.
And let’s get that deficit under control!
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of Spoiled Rotten, a new critical history of the Democratic party (Broadside Books).