Mr. Romney showed he knows how to take an opponent down; now he needs to show the ability to build himself and the rationale for his candidacy up. He should become bolder in his prescriptions, presenting a confident agenda for economic growth and renewed prosperity through reforms of tax, regulatory and energy policies.
There’s no reason he can’t, or shouldn’t do so. While Mr. Gingrich called Congressman Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms “right-wing social engineering,” Mr. Romney complimented them last November. He can refresh that speech and give it again. He can also build on his best moments in recent debates, when he unapologetically and passionately defended free enterprise. Far better to best Mr. Gingrich in the weeks ahead by taking the fight to President Obama, challenging the incumbent’s unpleasant attempt to appeal to envy and resentment.
I imagine the Romney team might be a tad frustrated to hear this. Romney, of course, has been a little busy lately fighting for his political life. And it’s not like this is a candidate short of policy plans.
He’s rolled out a comprehensive jobs plan (including energy regulatory reform), a foreign policy agenda and a serious spending and entitlement reform plan (boldly adopting a modified version of Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare premium support plan that in turn was the model for the Ryan-Wyden plan). It doesn’t appear to have gotten him much credit. (Well, at least with those pressing for him to talk more policy and less Gingrich.)
It is very easy from the sidelines to tell a campaign it must prepare for debates, take down an opponent, raise gobs of cash, fend off attacks on the candidate’s business record AND reiterate policy views. There isn’t time in the day or bandwidth in the media to cover it all.
But this is not to say that Romney’s policy groundwork laid last fall has been wasted or that he can’t refocus on the positive elements of his message. He now can remind voters and reiterate what he rolled out last year. He can update and expand upon it, as I have recently suggested, by tying together proposals that encourage upward mobility and by putting meat on the bones of his tax reform plans. If even sympathetic voices like Rove don’t recall the oodles of policy proposals Romney has presented, then the Romney team can certainly do a refresher course for voters, most of whom were not paying much attention last fall.
And this is where the excessive number of debates becomes problematic. The media coverage is debate-saturated and subsumes whatever else the candidates do and say. If the debates are all about Bain and tax returns, the campaigns in essence become all about Bain and tax returns.
Romney now has a break in the debate schedule, which can allow for major speeches and policy-heavy events. And once Super Tuesday is behind him, I’d bet he’s going to cut back dramatically on the number of debate appearances. They are useful in hitting an opponent and mounting a defense, but they are useless, if not counterproductive, in laying out a positive agenda.
It is also the case that there are an extraordinary number of name Republicans who’ve been sitting on their hands, offering no endorsement or work as public surrogates as they husband their own political capital. (The exceptions to the epidemic of inertia are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.) As Romney turns to policy he could use some help from knowledgable policy wonks (e.g. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ryan, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels) who understand these issues and can appreciate the policy work already done. In short, it’s Romney’s responsibility to highlight and spread his policy agenda, but GOP “leaders” concerned about the amount of policy content could, you know, actually help in this regard (especially those who would like to be on the VP short list).
The number of voices offering advice and criticism to campaigns can be deafening and paralyzing. A good candidate and experienced executive will listen to input, prioritize his goals and execute. Romney, of course, is winning the nomination, so it’s not like he’s made a grave mistake. What he can do during February, however, is take constructive advice, implement it and improve his standing within the party and in the general election. In the meantime, conservative critics, as my kids would say, should chill. It’ll all get done in due course.