Romney’s finances and tenure at Bain dominated the campaign week, despite the fact that it came immediately after the third tepid jobs report in three months that should have put the president on the defensive. Instead, the Obama team kept the pressure on Romney, taunting him to release more years of tax returns and hectoring him over the private equity company he founded. The week ended with the president and Romney hurling questions and accusations at each other.
Republicans are nervous about what some see as the Romney campaign’s relative passivity in the face of the onslaught by the Obama team. The president’s forces have spent almost $25 million on ads this spring and summer, attacking Romney over his role at Bain and the outsourcing that was done by some of the companies in which Bain had invested. Overall, they have vastly outspent Romney on television.
Romney is at a financial disadvantage right now, despite the fact that he’s raising money faster than the president. By the rules of the game, Obama is spending money raised for the primaries. For Romney, that primary season account is significantly depleted, because of the length of the GOP nomination battle. Campaign advisers say much of the money he is raising now is for the general election.
That doesn’t do much to tamp down worries among Republicans that Obama will effectively disqualify Romney in the eyes of many voters before the two national conventions. Romney advisers point to polls that show there has been little movement in the overall race, despite the pounding from the Obama campaign, as evidence that the president is not making headway with his attacks. But Romney’s decision to fire back on Friday, as well as a sharply negative ad unveiled that morning, suggest that he and his team have reached the same conclusion as the Wisconsin governor — that it’s time to get on offense.
Walker isn’t convinced that the Bain-related attacks will take root. But to the extent that they fill a vacuum created by Romney’s failure either to fight back or more aggressively talk about economic and fiscal issues, the governor sees reason to worry.
“The president’s team desperately does not want to run on his record, so they are desperately trying to have it about anything other than his record,” Walker said by telephone from Williamsburg, where he is attending the National Governors Association meeting. He added of Romney: “He’s got to be forceful about fighting back.”
Walker believes that where Romney needs to show more aggression is in the larger debate about the economy and the country’s debt and deficit problems. “I think he’s been very good in articulating the economy message,” Walker said. “I’ve heard bits and pieces but haven’t seen it collectively put together as a strong argument on the budget side.”
Romney’s advisers hope to make the November election a referendum on the president, and there’s little doubt that Obama’s record will be the biggest factor in the minds of most voters. But Walker pointed to 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated then-President Jimmy Carter.
Reagan is remembered for the famous question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” That question helped sink Carter. But as Walker notes, there was more to the Reagan campaign than one crystallizing question in the final weeks before the election. Reagan had campaigned constantly on themes of limited government and restoring American power and prestige.
“We knew what Ronald Reagan stood for,” Walker said.
Walker urged Romney to develop a more robust message about how he would tackle the issues of debt and deficit, as he said many Republican governors have done in the past few years. When the two appeared together in Janesville, Wis., recently, Walker said he was impressed with Romney’s economic message but added: “I think he needs to do more on the fiscal side. . . . He’s got to repeat it over and over and over, particularly on visits to swing states. He’s got to talk about it.”
Walker went through his own budget wars in early 2011. His aggressive attack on public-employee unions tore his state apart and led to the recall election. He came out of the experienced chastened by the mistakes he made in not preparing the public better for what he planned to do. “I was so eager to fix things; I didn’t talk about it,” he said, repeating the lesson he told voters he had learned.
But Walker also believes that what ultimately saved him in the recall vote was his willingness to take controversial positions on how to deal with the state’s budget problems. He believes voters reward politicians who take strong stands. He says the more Romney is willing to articulate that kind of fiscal agenda for the country, the better his chances of winning in November.
Is that an argument for putting a fellow Wisconsin Republican, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, on the ticket? “Absolutely,” he said. “The reason Paul’s legitimately on the short list [of vice presidential contenders] is that it shows Governor Romney is serious about tackling the issue.”
Democrats would love to run against Ryan’s budget blueprint, believing it would turn off swing voters.
Picking Ryan would show just how serious Romney is about embracing a bold fiscal agenda. But the choice of a vice president is less important than the presumptive nominee’s message and posture. As Walker put it: “Always be aggressive, moving forward. You’re always better moving forward.”
Obama won Wisconsin easily four years ago. After prevailing in the recall election, Walker said he told Romney the state is now in play in November. But he offered this other piece of advice: It’s not enough for Romney to present himself as a Republican alternative. “Those independent voters who swung over to me have to see the “R” standing for ‘reform,’ ” he said. “That’s the thing swing voters are looking for.”
Republicans will be looking in the coming weeks to see how Romney responds.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.