Mitt Romney’s answer to ‘the vision thing’


Mitt Romney talks with campaign strategist Stuart Stevens during a podium check at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
September 17, 2012

If accurate, Politico’s inside look Sunday at the disarray in Mitt Romney’s campaign offers a devastating portrait of the leadership problems the GOP candidate faces.

There are questions of overreliance on a single adviser, Stuart Stevens (“In what many in the campaign now consider a fundamental design flaw, Stevens is doing three major jobs: chief strategist, chief ad maker and chief speechwriter”). There are questions about the campaign’s structure (“Romney has allowed seven distinct power centers to flourish inside his campaign”). And all of those lead to questions about Romney’s supposed advantage as an efficient, management-driven business executive (“Romney associates are baffled that such a successful corporate leader has created a team with so few lines of authority or accountability”).

But to me, the biggest question the article raises about the leadership of Romney’s campaign is this one: Why has the Romney campaign focused so much on Obama, and so little on Romney? He has been too quiet on the specific policies he plans to use to lead the country forward and make things better for average Americans.

As the Politico story quotes one anonymous longtime friend of Romney’s as saying: “You design a campaign to reinforce the guy that you’ve got. The campaign … did not come up with a compelling, policy-backed argument for credible change.” It has not focused on, as President George H. W. Bush famously called it, “the vision thing.”

As if right on cue, the Romney campaign said Monday that it would be shifting its message from one that’s all about the economy to a more policy-specific look at how Romney would change the status quo. The shift is set to include new television ads that address the middle class, a series of speeches that more concretely outline his policy ideas and a greater effort on winning the Hispanic vote.

Such a strategic turn at this point in the campaign carries plenty of risk. If Romney looks like he’s changing his strategy too late in the game, he could come off as indecisive or unfocused. If he doesn’t stay exclusively on the economy message, his campaign could end up drawing attention to areas where Romney has less of an advantage. And with greater policy specifics comes greater scrutiny—necessary, of course, but also potentially risky.

If he’s successful in making this pivot, however, it will be because Romney finally started talking about what voters really want to hear: How he plans to make their lives better. As former George W. Bush speechwriter and Daily Beast/Newsweek contributor David Frum tweeted Monday morning, “the problem isn’t the campaign leadership; it’s the party’s followership.”

People do not rally behind leaders who focus on why the other guy hasn’t worked, or who offer few details about what they plan to do once in office. It’s much harder to get them excited about a change when the focus has been on the negative. Voters—Democrat or Republican—may be a little more reserved about that, er, “hopey changey stuff,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t looking for a credible message of possibility about the future.

More from Jena McGregor and On Leadership:

Romney’s people problem, highlighted on video

Behind Mitt Romney’s Libya statement

The 2012 Service to America winners

Leadership IQ and the race for the White House

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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