Mitt Romney might still win this election, but he’s now stuck in a trap that will be difficult to escape. Americans are rejecting his argument that they should view their choice mostly as a referendum on Obama’s economic performance, because they blame the sluggish recovery on the magnitude of the mess Obama inherited from George W. Bush, and believe things will get better in Obama’s second term. That is putting pressure on Romney to be more specific about why his alternative, such as it is, would spark a faster recovery than is occurring under Obama.
But Romney can’t be too much more specific about that alternative, because it risks reminding voters of the degree to which his policies resemble those of the aforementioned George W. Bush, under whom the meltdown happened in the first place.
I know you’re sick of hearing that the basic assumptions underlying Romney’s campaign strategy may be flawed. But we now have a Republican poll that helps confirm this. GOP pollster David Winston’s new survey finds Romney’s framing of the race may not be resonating:
* The poll finds that only 18 percent of registered voters say the most important question determining their vote is whether they are better off than they were four years ago. Seventy-seven percent say the most important question is whether things will get better in the future.
* The poll finds a plurality, 48 percent, thinks the “economic policies of the past” are causing more problems, while only 45 percent say that of the “economic policies of the present.” In other words, Bush economics is still weighing on people’s minds.
The poll finds some evidence of preference for GOP economic ideas. But as Bill Kristol notes, the main takeaway is that Romney can't make this about the last four years and needs to better sell his own future agenda.
This GOP poll’s suggestion that Romney’s message may be flawed, by the way, is supported by reams of other public polling finding that Romney’s advantage on the economy has vanished, that people are not concluding that Obama was a total failure and that people believe things will get better in his second term.
So it appears that the only way for Romney to win this — barring a cataclysmic outside event — is to argue that he’ll bring about a faster recovery than Obama is in the process of engineering. As Winston told Politico, voters don’t want the election to be backward-looking or about who started the fire that nearly burned down the economy, but “want the focus to be on putting the fire out.”
And therein lies Romney’s trap. If Romney offers more specifics, it will only make it easier to point out the similarities between his proposals and those of the president on whose watch the inferno started. What’s more, as Ezra Klein has detailed, Romney’s approach is actually further to the right than Bush’s on a number of fronts, from the size of his tax cuts benefitting the rich to the depth of his spending cuts that would harm the middle class. So specificity is not Romney’s friend. But as it is turning out, neither is vagueness.