As those in and around the Mitt Romney campaign have explained privately and on the record, the frenzy about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s surge in the national polls hasn’t panicked them. They, of course, lived through the 2008 race when Sen. John McCain came from far behind, Rudy Giuliani melted and Fred Thompson turned out to be much to do about nothing. That isn’t to say they intend to sit back. Their game plan was in full view at the VFW speech today in Texas.
Whoever Romney has fired or hired to assist with speechwriting, the change was somewhat dramatic. Gone were equivocations and recycled stump speech lines. This is a more aggressive and more colorful Romney.
He began with the list of enemies — “Some are jihadists, some are communists, and some are simply tyrants who clothe themselves in any convenient political manifesto. And so once again, American heroes are called upon to defend liberty.” Notice “liberty,” a word that’s fallen out of fashion with many conservatives. If Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s speech was limiting (not “military adventurism” and only fight when “vital national interests” are at stake), Romney’s (again, not his usual style) was anything but.
Then came the quick shift to the economy, which remains Romney’s focus and, his team contends, his best issue. He told the crowd:
25 million Americans are out of work, or have stopped looking, or have only part time jobs but want full-time work. Home values have dropped more than they did during the Depression. National debt is almost as large as our entire economy, and we owe a huge chunk of it to China. Incredibly, unfunded government promises now total about $530,000 per American household. This cannot possibly stand as the legacy we will leave the next generation.
And the peril of this mismanagement may even be more imminent. We stand near a threshold of profound economic misery. Four more years on the same political path could prove disastrous.
I am a conservative businessman. I have spent most of my life outside of politics, dealing with real problems in the real economy. Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don’t know how to get us out!
And that is his pitch both in the primary and the general election. He doesn’t mention Perry by name, and until the debates, I wouldn’t count on him doing so. But the message is that pols don’t get how the private sector works. They know about bailouts, crony capitalism, borrowing and spending. Expect to hear a whole lot about that in Nevada next week when he rolls out his jobs speech and in the fall debates.
Then it was back to foreign policy. Here, he put some meat on the bones. That’s going to be another theme you’ll see more of: He’s got answers, the other guys and gals have rhetoric. On defense spending:
Across the globe, China is becoming not only an economic powerhouse, but also a military super-power. Properly considered, China’s military spending is nearly half our own. Its military build-up should give us pause.
As America’s veterans, you understand better than anyone that weakness invites aggression and that the best ally of peace is a strong America.
Our Air Force is now older and smaller than it has been for decades. Our Navy has fewer ships than it has had since World War One. The Navy says it needs 313 ships to fulfill it missions around the world. It only has 284 ships and we’re on track to drop down to the low 200s.
And while our output has declined, the bureaucracy has increased. There is enormous waste. Let me give you an example: During World War Two, we built 1,000 ships per year with 1,000 people in the Bureau of Ships – the purchasing department, if you will. In the 1980’s we built 17 ships per year, with 4,000 people in purchasing. Today, for 9 ships a year, it takes 25,000 people!
Let me tell you, as a conservative businessman who has spent most of his life in the private sector, I look at that kind of inefficiency and bloat and say, “Let me at it.”
I will slice billions of dollars in waste and inefficiency and bureaucracy from the defense budget. I will use the money we save for modern ships and planes, and for more troops. And I’ll spend it to ensure that veterans have the care they deserve.
A tip of the hat to the fiscal hawks, but his statement that he wants to plow back any savings into defense echoes the message of many conservative analysts who have been lambasting the Obama administration for using defense cuts to fuel domestic spending increases. His statement that “American leadership is more than a budget fight” and his indictment of the “muddled picture of American policy and power” suggest that he’s presenting himself as the competent commander in chief. His critique of Obama’s Middle East policy is in sync with that of neoconservative and conservative hawks:
In the Mideast, we are pressuring our closest ally Israel to make concessions while putting almost no pressure on the Palestinians. The administration was quick to criticize Israel but slow to confront Syria’s strongman, Bashar al-Assad, even though he facilitated arming Hezbollah, allowed terrorists to cross his border into Iraq to attack U.S. troops, and turned weapons on his own people. Instead of calling Mr. Assad a reformer, the administration should have labeled him a killer.
President Obama’s reticence to criticize Mr. Assad echoes his unwillingness to say a harsh word about the ayatollahs of Iran when they engaged in a bloody crack down on the dissidents who bravely protested the stolen 2009 election. The White House was so tentative in its criticism and so eager to continue its policy of “engagement,” that Iranian protesters questioned whether President Obama was with them. What a disgrace.
Libya is a topic on which no Republican candidate is willing to fully embrace as a mission, a “vital national interest” in Perry’s lexicon. Romney here gives a critique that suggests his biggest complaint is Obama’s timidity, not the choice of the mission. (“First, President Obama acted as if it were a great surprise that a rebellion erupted, even though the Arab Spring was already in full swing in Tunisia and Egypt. Our involvement in Libya was marked by inadequate clarity of purpose before we began the mission, mission muddle during the operation, and ongoing confusion as to our role in the future.”)
Romney’s team has insisted that as voters turn the attention back to the campaign and the fall debates dominate the political news, we will see some robust policy pronouncements. This had the feel of a warm-up, an effort to lay down some markers and begin to introduce some themes. It was a different sort of speech than Perry’s, more specific and more attention paid to the economy. Expect more of that and a clearer delineation between the candidates, if not on ideology then on experience and capability.