I suspect that Mitt Romney will soon deliver a major foreign-policy speech. He should. There is lots to say, and Romney has a stronger case than ever that President Obama’s foreign policy has led to more chaos, less stability and less democracy in the world. We’re not more respected in the world; we’re mocked and murdered in the Middle East. He might bring some slides of the embassy attacks. And he certainly should explain what the sequester cuts would look like, how jobs would be lost in key states and what implications that has for us around the globe (e.g., China’s ascendancy in Asia).
But the Romney advisers are mistaken if they think a single speech will do it. Romney should figure out how to deliver his message on domestic policy, as well as foreign policy, directly to voters. If the last week or so has shown anything, it is that no matter what errors the president makes and no matter how cogent Romney’s criticisms, it’s not going to get through the media filter. So the question is: How?
He can start with something he did earlier in the year and then inexplicably dropped: a major speech, once a week, on a single topic. Foreign policy can and should be the first of many. Give these speeches outside the Beltway, in the swing states. He can use his five-point plan as the scaffolding to make his case.
He and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) often talk about two visions, but there is a need to explain what voters’ lives would be like in each of them. What does the economy look like under Obama’s tax-hike scenario and what does it look like under Romney’s tax-reform scenario? What does an energy worker get under Obama’s scheme (complete with Environmental Protection Agency legislation, denial of the Keystone XL pipeline, etc.), and what does he get under Romney’s push for North American energy independence? Simply saying that you have a different view and that the other guy’s for more government really doesn’t do it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean drowning the audience in minutiae. The press insists that Romney must tell us all the base broadeners in his tax plan. He’s got good reason not to, according to aides. They believe they have offered as much detail as the Simpson-Bowles report and that providing more detail would unnecessarily constrict him from reaching a deal with Congress. That view was forged from his experience in Massachusetts, where he set out general principles then worked with legislators to reach agreement. You can agree or disagree with that approach, but he needs to explain it and convey that this is a methodology that has worked in the past for him. (By the way, it was also Ronald Reagan’s approach; he provided virtually no details on tax reform in the 1980 campaign.)
The good news is that he has on the ticket one of the best explainers in politics. Ryan can join him, or better yet, duplicate those messages in the sort of videos Ryan used so effectively during the budget debates. (Jobs lost if we go over the fiscal cliff vs. jobs gained under Romney tax plan.)
The Obama spin squad is wrong in saying that Romney and Ryan simply want to make this a referendum. They don’t; they simply haven’t been clear enough in explaining their alternative. Romney’s political advisers seem to think that merely having a plan is as important as what is in it. I think that’s wrong, and Romney needs to tell those “wrong-track” voters how he’s going to get the country on the right track.
If he has the money, Romney can buy 30-minute blocks in some markets to deliver the message on air. He can give speeches. He can do online video messages. What he can’t do is visit and revisit the same states with the same message and expect it to penetrate the media din. It’s not happening.
Romney’s advisers have lost control of the daily message, and a great deal of the public doesn’t know what he’s for. What they know is what Obama and his media spinners have said Romney is for. No one is going to disabuse voters of this except Romney and Ryan, so they better get cracking.
It is tempting to explain the state of the race by citing poll bumps and ad dollars. Certainly, there are “better” polls, here and there, that suggest Romney is effectively tied. (For example, he leads by 11 points in the latest New York Times/CBS News poll among likely voters who are independents.) But he is not ahead in key swing states, and he needs to aggressively court voters who aren’t sure he will be any better than Obama. It’s time for him to make his move.
A final note: Romney needs to make the race not only about policies, but about judgment and leadership. Obama, as Bob Woodward amply documents in “The Price of Politics,” did not know how to make a grand bargain. Obama seriously believed that making the United States less visible in the world was a good idea. These and many other examples support the argument that he is unsuited to the job of actually governing. He knows how to speak. His advisers know how to attack and obfuscate. But he didn’t know going in to the White House and hasn’t learned yet how to enlist allies, make deals with Congress and refrain from turning political opponents into enemies. He will never get it. Romney shouldn’t be shy in saying that the president is not a leader, at least not a competent one.