President Obama’s problem is that he’s governed incompetently. His strength is that his campaign team, aided greatly by a compliant media, has succeeded in keeping Mitt Romney off balance and on defense. Mitt Romney’s problem is not that he is a bad person or lacks ideas or doesn’t have facts on his side. His central problem, I think, has been that he has not pierced through the fog of ads and attacks (and yes, his own slips) to make a compelling case that Obama has, if anything, dragged down the economy and that his very different set of policies will get the country back on track.
Since discovering that he need only recycle Ronald Reagan speeches, I went looking for one of the Reagan speeches I remember as being quite compelling, a sort of political brief for the prosecution/eviction of the incumbent president.
On Oct. 24, 1980, Reagan gave a televised address. He made his argument point by point, leading the audience to the inevitable conclusion. First, Reagan told voters that the incumbent president had messed up, but that America can be great again:
If you are like most Americans, you and your family know the sound of that silence.
You experience it around the dinner table when there is a discussion of how to pay for the children’s education.
You experience it in supermarkets when you pick up an item, look at the price, and — placing it back on the shelf — move on.
You or a loved one may have personally experienced that silence in the place where you once worked — when it had to shut down.
On street corners of our city neighborhoods it is a silence filled with anger and bitterness; on farms it is a puzzled silence, filled with questions of how things could go so wrong in a land as blessed as ours.
Yes, the mighty music of American economic progress has been all but silenced by four years of Mr. Carter’s failures. This election will determine whether the nation and the world will ever again hear that great sound; will determine if the dinner table of your home and the supermarkets of your neighborhood will ever again be places where plans can be made and necessities can be purchased without the gnawing doubt and, yes, fear. . . .
In other words, Romney would do well to raise the stakes, to make the point that, as badly as we’ve done over the last four years, we can’t muddle along like this for much longer. He is on solid ground from a historic perspective in arguing that we are very likely to see the economy sag and foreign events continue to spin out of control unless we make significant changes.
Next comes the case against the president. Reagan recited the facts and figures (on unemployment, inflation, etc.) Then, as now, he had to chastise the president for claiming progress. (“In the face of all this economic bad news, Mr. Carter has taken to telling voters that things will get better.”)
Then Reagan said, “The other day someone said: ‘The Carter administration is giving failure a bad name.’ And they haven’t just failed last month or last year. They’ve been failing for four years.” Well, perhaps Romney ought to point out that Obama is giving “recovery” a bad name since it’s worse in some regards (e.g. loss of household income) than the recession. Then the challenger also dealt with excuse-mongering. The figures seem quaint, but the idea is the same. (“Mr. Carter is acting as if he hasn’t been in charge for the past three and a half years; as if someone else ran up nearly $200 billion in federal red ink; as if someone else was responsible for the largest deficit, including off-budget items, in American history; and, as if someone else was predicting a budget deficit for this fiscal year that began October 1st of $30 billion or more.”)
But the bulk of that speech in 1980 was about what Reagan would do for the voters by virtue of a plan “rooted in a strategy for economic growth, a program that sees the American economic system as it is — a huge, complex, dynamic system — that can work if the American people get a chance to work.” He gave bullet points (e.g. “We must review regulations that affect the economy, and change or eliminate them to encourage economic growth”), but he then expanded on each one with more detail than you’d expect for a late-in-the-race speech. Consider what he said on his tax plan:
This plan calls for an across-the-board 10 percent reduction in personal income tax rates in each of the next three years. After that, we will index tax rates so that inflation doesn’t force taxpayers into higher tax brackets.
Jimmy Carter says this can’t be done. In fact, he says it shouldn’t be done. He favors the current crushing tax burden because it fits into his philosophy of government as the dominating force in American economic life.
Official projections of the Congressional Budget Office show that by fiscal year 1985, if the current rates of taxation are still in effect, federal tax revenues will rise to over one trillion dollars a year. In 1981, the increase will take $86 billion more than government took this year.. . .We also need faster, less complex depreciation schedules for business. Outdated depreciation schedules now prevent many industries from modernizing their plants. Faster depreciation would allow these companies to generate more capital internally, permitting them to make the investment necessary to create new jobs, to help workers become more productive, and to become more competitive in world markets.
That is how you set out an economic plan that is both forward-looking and well-reasoned.
Those are the pieces of a closing argument, if you will, to the American people in a presidential contest against a failing incumbent: Empathize with the rotten economic situation of Americans, rebuff the excuses and the everything-is-going-just-fine hooey of the incumbent and then not only list but explain how your program will work. Ideally, Romney should have used his speech at the Republican National Convention to do this. But he has three debates, plenty of time (for speeches and ads) and a public that seems willing to dump the incumbent if only it could get some assurance things will be better without him.
Certainly time and ad money have not been used to maximize Romney’s advantages. But that’s water under the bridge. He now can do it, provided he spends his remaining time on the simple message: We can do better, we’re doing worse under Obama and here’s how we can do better. That should be the formula for every ad, stump speech, major speech and debate answer. If he does that, he most certainly can win the race.