Mitt Romney has a well-deserved reputation as risk-averse and cautious. His campaign team has made no secret of its strategy to have their man tiptoe to the presidency by focusing almost exclusively on President Obama’s stewardship of the economy. The execution of this strategy depends on Romney doing nothing to “distract” from the economy, meaning that Romney’s innate caution is being reinforced at every turn by those around him.
To some extent, this approach is understandable. For months, voters have told pollsters that the economy is the most important issue in the election, and handling the economy is one of the few issue areas where Romney enjoys a real advantage over Obama.
But there’s a downside, too. Voters may care most about the economy, but they don’t care only about the economy. And by seeking to avoid doing anything controversial, Romney has done some foolish things.
Bloomberg reported last week that Romney’s campaign had asked Florida governor Rick Scott to stop talking about the drop in unemployment in the state during Scott’s time in office. The story makes the Romney team look like it’s hoping for bad economic news. Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign quickly distributed the article as evidence that Romney wants to ignore good news about the economy. Scott understandably wants to tout his accomplishments and in a speech on Friday ignored Romney’s request. “We’ve had the biggest drop in unemployment than any state but one,” Scott said. “We’ve gone from 516,000 people on unemployment to 340,000.”
Earlier in the week, Romney made an appearance in Janesville, Wisconsin, as part of a bus tour of small towns the Obama administration has ignored. Representative Paul Ryan joined Romney on stage, along with Governor Scott Walker and Senator Ron Johnson. A local businessman who spoke at the event noted that Ryan is from Janesville and joked that Romney could make news by announcing him as his running mate. Walker introduced Romney to the enthusiastic crowd, which still seemed to be on a high from Walker’s recall triumph two weeks earlier.
Given that Romney was in -Ryan’s hometown in the state that has brought more excitement to the Republican party than almost anything since the 2010 midterms, one might have expected a discussion of Ryan’s work on entitlement reform or Walker’s impressive budget reforms and his electrifying victory on June 5. Indeed, one might have thought Romney would want to hold up these conservative reformers as a model for his own approach to post-Obama governance. Romney not only failed to do that, he made just one passing reference to either man—a promise to balance the budget as Wisconsin’s governor had done.
It was not just a missed opportunity; it was a slight. And several Wisconsin Republicans took note.
The following day, Jonathan Karl at ABC News reported that the Romney campaign had not asked Senator Marco Rubio for vice presidential vetting materials. There are reasons that Rubio as a running mate could be problematic (see Stephen F. Hayes’s May 14 piece in these pages on his relationship with Rep. David Rivera, R-Shady—“The Rise of Rubio”), but Rubio has huge upsides. He is probably the best public speaker in the Republican party; he has a firm grasp of policy details on everything from taxes to Syria; he generates enthusiasm with all kinds of voters—from independent Florida oldsters to Tea Party enthusiasts wearing tricornered hats. Oh, and in an election that will feature a pitched battle for Hispanic voters, his personal story is a compelling example of the American Dream.
But Karl’s story was accurate. Romney wasn’t giving Rubio a serious look—at least not until the report generated grumbling among top Republicans and conservatives outside of the Romney campaign. That response prompted the candidate to declare, in a rather bizarre statement, that he is in fact vetting Rubio very thoroughly. The fact that this back-and-forth came as Republicans tried to respond to Obama’s campaign maneuvering on immigration and on the day that Rubio launched his book tour made it even more painful.
Taken separately, these incidents might not be a big deal. But together, in the space of a week, they suggest a candidate and a campaign in a mutually reinforcing cycle of cautiousness. And the problem with strategy based on risk-aversion?