The problem — and there is one — in the Mitt Romney camp is not the lack of policies or the wrong policies. In fact the campaign has accumulated sensible conservative policies on everything from Medicare reform to energy development to Israel. But policy in a presidential campaign can’t be an end in itself. There is no prize for best white papers and most eloquent e-mail releases. If a campaign is too cautious, too afraid of a misstep, too anxious to retreat when the mainstream media howl, too slow to utilize the stories of the day and too intent on trimming its sails, the campaign will not succeed.
The frustration in the conservative movement is not with Romney’s positions nor even with Romney himself, who has earned the admiration of the base both because of his exemplary personal character and because of his nerviness in selecting as his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
When a big event occurs (e.g., a credit downgrade, more than 20 embassies under siege) the campaign will churn out an e-mail. Maybe a speech but in a few weeks. This is not the optimal way to run a presidential campaign in a 24/7 new media environment.
There are at least five things the campaign is doing or not doing that dull and dampen its message and drive conservatives nuts.
Poor surrogates: Where are the best voices, and why are they not day in and day out coordinating on a single message? John Bolton on foreign policy. New Gingrich on radical jihadism. Paul Ryan on anything. John Sununu on Obama criticism. They are all top-flight and too rarely seen. Week by week and day by day, the campaign lacks a coordinated and consistent message presented by the most forceful advocates. Put the policy people out to explain policy. Let the Obama team put out the hacks.
Too much delay: The campaign takes too long to put Romney in a position to expound on major issues and key developments that are harmful to the president. I’m not talking about a two-line statement or a couple of campaign stump lines. Romney needs promptly to deliver significant speeches or pound through media appearances on troublesome domestic and international developments. How did Obama’s policies contribute to these, and how would Romney’s policies get different results? The average voter would never know.
The lesson of last week was not to talk less, but to talk more frequently and expansively. Good policy ideas in the campaign’s headquarters in Boston resemble a post office worker who says, “I have to go in the back.” (No!! Not in the back!). It takes way too long to come out in the light of day, and when it does, it’s not worth the wait. It should take a day or two, not a week or two, to figure out what to say.
Too little explanation: A five-point plan doesn’t explain itself, even with bullet points under each item. Ryan seems to understand the basics: Tell them what Obama did wrong. Tell them what resulted. Tell them what Romney-Ryan will do. Tell them how it’s going to improve their lives. Then repeat and repeat and repeat. Stating a policy is not selling a policy or selling a candidate.
Not enough leadership talk: Bob Woodward’s book paints a portrait of a president unable to work with others, who let dogged left-wing partisans run the White House and whose arrogance repeatedly got in the way of effective governance. In the embassy crisis we’ve seen plenty of mourning but very little vibrant defense of America from the president. He thinks that Muslims are bruised because of a film. He does not recognize that America is being attacked. No wonder Romney and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to speak up. Someone had to. If Romney can’t convey that Obama is a passive bystander to our economy deterioration and international decline, he’s not going to win the election. Now, to his credit Romney released his weekly podcast on “American leadership.” (“The attacks on our diplomatic outposts are, of course, a tragic reminder that the world remains a dangerous place, and that America’s leadership is needed. And for America to be able to provide strong leadership in the world, we have to have a strong economy here at home.”) He’ll need to do more of that.
Not enough context: Obama, aided by the media, has largely convinced voters that voting against Obama is tantamount to going back to the bad old days of George W. Bush. He’s managed to make the election between Bill Clinton and George W Bush. In fact last week seemed like we were smack in the middle of 1979 or 1980 — economic decline and a “kick us” sign on our backs around the globe. A lot of Americans don’t remember, and without a refresher they aren’t going to get the comparison. Nor has the Romney team done a good enough job explaining that on everything from welfare to fiscal sobriety to Israel Romney is closer to Clinton than Obama is.
The amazing thing is that with a serious problem conveying the Romney-Ryan message the race is still so tight. That’s a tribute to how desperate the American public is for an alternative and how well Romney and Ryan have done in exposing Obama’s record. Imagine how well the ticket would do if it fixed these five defects. The race can be won but not unless Romney shakes up his team and begins to convey in concrete terms why the public needs to dump Obama and hire him..