When parties lose a presidential campaign but don't want to have to rethink anything on their agenda, they always say the same thing: "It was the message." Or, if they want to change it up, "It was the campaign staff," which tends to mean the same thing.
That's what you're hearing today. "We really should have been talking more about Benghazi and Obamacare," a Romney campaign adviser told the National Review. "Some top donors privately unloaded on Romney’s senior staff, describing it as a junior varsity operation that failed to adequately insulate and defend Romney," reports The Washington Post's Philip Rucker. “We need a coherent narrative," begins Thursday's edition of Ben Domenech's influential conservative newsletter, The Transom.
But a campaign's message isn't some free-floating concept unmoored from reality or strategic thinking. Messages are tied down by circumstance. And the attacks on Mitt Romney's messaging forget why he adopted the message he ultimately did.
The Romney campaign doesn't get enough credit for the unlikely feat they managed in the primaries. The Republican Party's mood was such that Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum all spent time atop the polls. Meanwhile, more sober, moderate candidates, such as Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Haley Barbour, chose to sit this election out.
You couldn't have imagined a candidate less suited to this tea party moment than a moderate former governor of Massachusetts who had signed the forerunner to Obamacare into law, who had been a steadfast defender of Roe v. Wade and who had a very public reputation for being the kind of person who'd ignore his party's ideologues the moment he entered office. And yet Romney won the party's nomination. Chief campaign strategist Stuart Stevens and his team managed to get the Republican Party to sign onto the only candidate in the field who could possibly win in the general election. That was no small accomplishment.
But that win didn't come without costs. To survive the primaries, Romney had to pledge fealty to the tea party's policy preferences at every turn. His initial, relatively modest tax cut plan was quickly replaced by a huge tax cut that the campaign could never explain, and that the Obama team used to devastating effect. He signed Grover Norquist's pledge and promised to Cut, Cap and Balance the budget. He was all-in on repealing Obamacare, which meant he couldn't leverage his Massachusetts accomplishments to argue that he could make the health care reform law better and get it done with bipartisan support. He ran to the right on immigration, on abortion and on gay rights, none of which helped him in the general election.
Moreover, the right's mistrust of Romney was such that despite being a one-term governor who didn't live in Washington and had serious disagreements with the national Republican Party, he ended up running as a party insider, with a member of the wildly unpopular House GOP at his side, and was thus as tainted by the Republican brand as anyone.
Ultimately, Romney's message was constrained by the promises he'd made and constituencies he courted during the primary. He couldn't run as an outsider because he couldn't survive voicing any disagreements with national Republicans. He couldn't run as a pragmatist because he'd had to sign onto pretty much every idea in running mate Paul Ryan's budget plan and every pledge that was floating around the party. He couldn't run as a moderate because he couldn't afford to be one.
Blaming Romney's message is, in other words, another way of saying the substantive and coalitional commitments of the modern Republican Party need to be rethought. But that's not typically what people mean when they blame Romney's message. Instead, they mean that Romney just didn't articulate the Republican Party's substantive and coalitional commitments strongly or clearly or forcefully enough. If that convenient interpretation ends up the dominant one, it will be a disaster for the Republican Party.