It is good to get outside the Beltway echo chamber. Being far from D.C. gives you some perspective and insight into the state of the presidential race. Bottom line: While pundits and reports are convinced the presidential race is constantly shifting, and terribly important events, gaffes and point-scoring are occurring every day, in fact nothing has changed in the race for weeks, if not months, and it is unlikely to do so until the conventions. The Post-ABC poll of registered voters shows the race tied at 47 percent (with only 27 percent self-identifying as Republicans in contrast to the 2008 election, in which 32 of the electorate was Republican).
The economy is still lousy, the Obama team is still trying to distract with attacks on Mitt Romney’s money, and Obamacare is still unpopular. No wonder the polls haven’t moved. The public at large sees the general shape of the contest and the state of the country, not necessarily Romney’s delayed decision to embrace the idea that “Obamacare is a tax.” The voters see bad jobs numbers, not so much President Obama’s comment that the unemployment numbers are a “step in the right direction.” What a pol says about events is awfully important to pundits, while the events themselves are what matter to ordinary voters.
As a reality gut check, Jay Cost offers the smartest take (which should be read in full) on where the race stands:
“It is important to remember that Team Romney will use the Republican National Convention to introduce him to the public. Of course, the Bain attacks are eventually going to damage his reputation, at least a little bit – but Romney has a solid and compelling story to tell. He saved the Olympics. He was a pragmatic governor in deep blue Massachusetts. He’s a loyal family man. And so on. Voters are going to have all the facts about Romney come November – the positive and the negative.
Moreover, the race isn’t going to change dramatically unless and until Romney’s convention speech (when most voters will get the first sustained look at him and hear his full, unfiltered message) and the debates, when Romney like (Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan) will either make the sale (or not), and convince voters Obama is in over his head (or not). A month of negative job numbers (entirely possible, given the state of Europe) may virtually doom Obama, while a foreign policy event of great significance ( e.g., Israeli action against Iran) may either help or hurt.
On one hand, conservative critics are correct that Romney was slow off the draw to combat the outsourcing claim and to assert that Obamacare’s individual mandate is a tax. Romney’s natural caution coupled by too many cooks in the campaign kitchen result, predictably, in a blander and fuzzier message. However, the degree of pundit angst is entirely disproportionate to the situation.
For all of the campaign’s shortcomings, Romney pounced effectively on Obama’s plan to let the Bush tax cuts expire for upper-income taxpayers, including many small businesses. Those expecting Romney to pull ahead before the fall aren’t being realistic. A challenger who keeps the incumbent below 50 percent is in solid shape. Romney was never going to put the race away in June or July. We’ll go through thousands of news cycles before Election Day.
The commonplace complaint that Romney is not offering a clear alternative message is, candidly, bizarre, especially for those talking- heads whose own policy preferences Romney has embraced already. He’s rolled out tax and entitlement reforms (including a Medicare premium-support plan), energy and regulatory plans, and debt reduction proposals in far greater detail than Obama did in 2008 or in this election. Romney has given compelling policy speeches at Liberty University, in Iowa ( a “prairie fire” of debt), on education, and this week at the NAACP (“Free enterprise is still the greatest force for upward mobility, economic security, and the expansion of the middle class. We have seen in recent years what it’s like to have less free enterprise. As President, I will show the good things that can happen when we have more – more business activity, more jobs, more opportunity, more paychecks, more savings accounts.”) For those who like lists, he came up with five “key steps” (“open up energy, expand trade, cut the growth of government, focus on better educating tomorrow’s workers today, and restore economic freedom”) and made a compelling pitch for education reform. You have to be determined not to listen to conclude he lacks either a vision or specific policies. The Romney team is at fault in not rebutting the criticism that he lacks substance and in failing to hammer its previously deployed proposals.
I’d invite the pundits, as I did recently, to take a day to go back through Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. They might be surprised by how little in the way of specifics Reagan offered and how much he relied on his indictment of Jimmy Carter. His closing comments in the first debate are as apt now as they were more than 30 years ago:
[I]t might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago? . . . .This country doesn’t have to be in the shape that it is in. We do not have to go on sharing in scarcity with the country getting worse off, with unemployment growing. . . .I know that the economic program that I have proposed for this nation in the next few years can resolve many of the problems that trouble us today. I know because we did it [as governor]. . . . I would like to have a crusade today, and I would like to lead that crusade with your help. And it would be one to take Government off the backs of the great people of this country, and turn you loose again to do those things that I know you can do so well, because you did them and made this country great.
Finally, it’s not as if Obama has made any progress. Josh Kraushaar smartly writes of the attacks on Bain that “it’s becoming clear that the attacks are doing more to buy the Obama campaign time than seriously change the trajectory of the race.” He explains:“The polling shows that voters have made up their minds about Obama, with many of the undecided voters still learning about Romney. They’ve gotten their first impressions from the early Obama television ads, but Romney will have his chance to tout his positives with the August convention and upcoming debates.” Put differently, Obama has not dented Romney when he was his most vulnerable.
No doubt, Romney can be more nimble in his message. His argument should be consistent and fierce: Unless we dump Obama’s statism for free market reforms and pro-job growth policies we face continued economic depression. Call it opportunity vs. entitlement society, or statism vs. free markets. Say it is the Western European welfare state vs. limited government. The particular phrase is not as critical as the vividness and urgency of the choice.