Behind in the polls and facing mounting panic among his donors, Mitt Romney is readying his secret weapon for the debates: Zingers.
"Mr. Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August," reports the New York Times.
Pro tip: If your strategy to turn the presidential election around relies on Romney's sense of comic timing, you might want to prepare a Plan B, as well.
The idea that this election can be reshaped by a zinger speaks to a deeper problem in the Romney campaign's fundamental view of the race. As they see it, Obama's record is an obvious disaster and their job entails little more than pointing that out over and over again. That the polls haven't seemed responsive to this theory hasn't dissuaded them. The new explanation for Romney's difficulties is that the media are in the tank for Obama and that's why the Romney campaign's message isn't breaking through.
But during the debates, voters will see the two men on a stage together, with no media filter, and that could change everything. After the first debate, says Romney surrogate Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), “this whole race is going to be turned upside down.”
That's the kind of thinking that leads you to pepper your debate prep with zingers. But it's also the kind of thinking that's losing this race for Romney.
The American people know the economy is bad. In poll after poll, pluralities say they're worse off today than they were four years ago, and majorities say the country is on the wrong track. And yet Obama leads anyway.
The reason Obama is ahead is that voters, much to the surprise of the political consultant class, seem perfectly able to hold two seemingly contrary ideas in their head at the same time. They both think that things today are pretty bad and that things today would be worse if Obama hadn't been president. That's not speculation on my part. A recent Allstate/National Journal/Heartland Monitor poll asked Americans exactly that question, and 48 percent to 41 percent, they said they were better off today because Obama won in 2008, even though they also said, 34 percent to 31 percent, that they were worse off today than they were four years ago.
That doesn't mean Romney is doomed to lose this election. But he needs to do more than convince voters that the economy is bad at this very moment. He needs to convince them that the economy will be better if he's elected president. And that means convincing them that he's got a policy agenda capable of turning the economy around.
Which gets to Romney's real challenge in the debates, which has also been his real difficulty throughout the campaign: He doesn't have an appealing policy agenda capable of turning this thing around, and his party hasn't given him the freedom to construct one.
Consider Romney's tax plan, which has given his campaign no end of trouble. The most credible analyses suggest it will amount to a large tax cut on the rich and either a tax increase on the middle class or a lot of deficit spending. But Romney initially had a much more reasonable tax plan.
Early in the campaign, Romney proposed extending the Bush tax cuts and cutting capital gains taxes on everyone but the rich. If he had stuck with that more modest plan -- or if he'd been able to have a Nixon-to-China moment on taxes and propose raising them on wealthy people like himself -- he'd be in much better shape today. But back in the primary, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all had gigantic, ridiculous tax cuts, and those tax cuts seemed to be helping them in the polls. And so the Romney campaign yoked itself to a gigantic, ridiculous tax cut, too. Hence his current problems.
The rest of Romney's policies follow a similar pattern. Romney's budget proposal, while less specific than Paul Ryan's, actually wants to cut around $1.7 trillion more in federal spending while sharply increasing defense spending and holding Medicare and Social Security harmless. Making those numbers add up would require cutting every federal program that isn't Social Security, Medicare or defense by about 40 percent in 2016. That's ludicrous, and it's why the Romney campaign has been so afraid of offering specifics.
Elsewhere, his effort to avoid alienating parts of the conservative coalition has forced Romney to be vague on issues where the electorate might have rewarded fresh thinking. Despite being the first governor in the nation to actually pass and implement a universal health-care program, Romney has limited his proposal to repealing "Obamacare" -- which looks a lot like Romneycare -- and replacing it with . . . something. Despite knowing the world of finance much better than the incumbent does and thus having a real opportunity to make waves with a tough financial regulation proposal, Romney has stopped at promising to roll back Dodd-Frank and replace it with . . . something.
In 2008, Romney had one of the larger fiscal stimulus proposals. But since Republicans have now abandoned the very idea of stimulus, he's been forced to offer a jobs plan that relies exclusively on slow-acting policies to increase domestic energy production and retrain workers and sign new trade agreements. None of that has even the slightest chance of significantly changing the economy in 2013, or even 2014.
The Romney campaign's strategy of papering over the fractures in the GOP with a vague policy platform would have worked if hammering Obama's record had been enough to take control of this race. But it hasn't been, and now Romney is losing. Zingers aren't going to change that. But perhaps some new policies might.