Mitt Romney has had two rough weeks and is now narrowly trailing President Obama. Some of Obama’s lead is the result of a post-convention bounce, and people may debate the margins in the polls. But for now, in virtually every survey, Romney is running behind in a race where every point matters.
What should Romney do about this? He can launch a fresh round of ads. He can go harshly negative against the president. He can carve out time for a major policy speech. He can prepare diligently for the upcoming debates. He may do some or all those things in the coming weeks. But can he convince people that he is really ready to govern the country?
Romney’s advisers say there is no cause for alarm, that the latest polls mostly reflect a convention bounce that will soon dissipate, and that it was Obama who had the worse week, with images of embassies in flames, demonstrators in the Middle East denouncing America and the Federal Reserve confirming anew that the economy is not recovering well.
Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, said he believes there is a wide disconnect between the views of political strategists and pundits who populate the TV talk shows and the views elsewhere in America. “We feel very, very confident,” he said.
Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, countered by saying that his candidate has now solidified a lead, however narrow. He expects the polls to tighten. “We feel good but are clear-eyed about where things are,” he said.
It’s still possible that Romney will win this election simply because enough voters decide they’ve given up on Obama and are ready for an alternative. That’s been the theory behind the Romney campaign’s strategy from the very beginning. If it’s the economy, stupid; bring on the businessman.
Romney advisers look at the state of the country — the unemployment rate, the dissatisfaction with the pace of the recovery, the suffering among those who have been out of work for a year or more, the opposition to Obama’s health-care plan, the lack of progress reducing the deficit — and conclude that the electorate ultimately will decide to fire the president.
But are voters ready to hire Romney? Judging from all the evidence available, the answer is: not yet. For starters, voters still have little sense of what Romney would do as president. When the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll asked people whether Romney has done enough to provide details about his policies, 63 percent of Americans said no.
Romney has reduced the question of what he would do as president to five bullet points: domestic energy production, education and school choice, free trade, deficit reduction, and helping small business. He mentioned them in his acceptance speech in Tampa. To emphasize his priorities, his campaign ran a series of ads in the battleground states during the summer titled “Day One.” Not much of any of that has stuck.
Romney still has not answered big questions about his economic and budgetary proposals. He hasn’t explained how he would make up the revenue lost by his tax cuts. He will not identify the deductions he would eliminate as part of the comprehensive reform of the tax code he advocates to gain back close to enough revenue to close that gap.
Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) as his vice presidential running mate seemed to be signaling that he would run as a bold, conservative reformer whose platform would embrace major overhauls of federal entitlement programs and a dramatic effort to shrink the size of the federal government in the economy.
If that was his intention, Romney hasn’t followed through. His acceptance speech in Tampa — where he was speaking to his biggest audience of the campaign — was strangely muted on this central question. He had some telling lines about the president’s record but not much about his own vision. Does he embrace the Ryan blueprint for government?
Being president is much more than handling scripted moments, such as an acceptance speech. How has he handled those in the campaign? Romney stumbled during his foreign trip. This past week saw Romney in another unscripted moment, amid the chaos in Egypt and Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
With events still unfolding, Romney approved the distribution of a statement at 10 p.m. Tuesday that was harshly critical of the administration. Advisers say the images of a breakdown in Cairo led to the decision to speak out. Experience might have told Romney to be cautious and careful.
There was more than ample time for criticism and second-guessing once it was clear what had happened in both Egypt and Libya and after a pause to mourn the lives lost. Romney lost several days as he and his advisers defended the decision to attack the administration.
Romney advisers say this is small stuff compared with the anti-American uprisings in the Middle East, which they say makes a lie of Obama’s claim that his election would prompt the Muslim world to see the United States differently. The record should also note that Obama had an embarrassing flub when he couldn’t decide whether to call Egypt an ally, a surprising lapse on the part of a sitting president.
For voters wondering whether Romney is ready to govern, he could tell them he is because he has. But that four-year period from 2003 to 2007, when he was governor of Massachusetts, has been mostly missing in action in the campaign. Advisers said they would use the convention to highlight his tenure as governor, but with everything else they were trying to do, the record of those four years was often reduced to a paragraph in speeches by others.
In Massachusetts, he passed health-care reform but can’t talk about it because it’s too much like Obama’s. He dealt with a Democratic legislature there, but beyond saying he would reach across the aisle in Washington, he hasn’t shown how his experience as governor has informed his approach to the presidency.
Nor has he dealt with questions the public has about congressional Republicans, their agenda and their unwillingness to compromise. Approval ratings for congressional Republicans remain at or near historic lows. Which path would he take: the one that he says he pursued in Massachusetts that involved (out of necessity) compromise and conciliation or the hard-line path his party has followed during Obama’s presidency?
The debates begin Oct. 3. They provide the best forum remaining for Romney to let voters judge him next to the president. But there are fewer and fewer undecided or wavering voters as each day passes. Even before the debates begin, voting will start in Iowa, and as they continue in October, other states will follow.
So Romney has opportunities ahead to make the case for himself, rather than just against Obama. He has waited a long time to do so. As the race now stands, he will need to seize those moments and make the most of them.
For previous columns by Dan Balz,
go to postpolitics.com.