|The Romney Opportunity |
Running on biography and the economy won't be enough. .
April 25, 2012, 7:05 p.m. ET
With Newt Gingrich finally leaving the GOP Presidential race, Mitt Romney is now closer to realizing the ambition he has so long pursued: He has an even-money chance to become America's 45th President. He's more likely to fulfill that ambition if he overcomes his cautious nature and runs a campaign that is equal to America's current political moment.
This will not be the instinct of Mr. Romney or his close-knit group of advisers. Looking at the polls, they see a nearly even race, with President Obama below 50% despite the beating Mr. Romney took in the primaries.
The temptation will be to assume the public has decided to fire the incumbent and so run a campaign to become the safe alternative. Take no policy risk, stress Mr. Romney's biography, his attractive family and the seven habits of highly effective businessmen, and then hammer away on the economy.
It's possible, if job creation sputters again or Europe goes into bond-market arrest, that this kind of campaign will be enough to win. It's also possible—more likely in our view—that this will play into Mr. Obama's strengths of personal likability and Oval Office experience, especially if the economy keeps chugging on its current slow-growth path. Mr. Romney will have to make a case not merely against Mr. Obama's failings but also for why he has the better plan to restore prosperity.
On the economy in particular, such a larger argument would fit the country's current mood. The public's anxiety isn't merely about the failures of the last three years, as important as it is for Mr. Romney to score this Administration for its failed stimulus, crony capitalism, hyperregulation, soaring debt and ObamaCare.
Americans are more deeply worried than at any time since the 1970s about their country's long-term prospects. Why aren't middle-class incomes rising? Why are nonmilitary public institutions failing—from K-12 education to entitlements?
Mr. Obama understands these anxieties, even if he has no new answer for them. So his diversionary re-election strategy will be a combination of class warfare, more government subsidies (free student loans!), and personal attacks on Mr. Romney for being wealthy. Mr. Romney will need allies who can rebut these attacks.
But he'll find it easier to defeat Mr. Obama's argument—even to transcend it—if he offers his own economic narrative that reaches back to the mistakes of the Bush Administration to explain how we got here and how he can get us out. Politically, this will help shield Mr. Romney from Mr. Obama's inevitable attempt to link the Republican to the Bush era. Such a critique also has the advantage of being true.
Before Mr. Obama's stimulus, Mr. Bush joined with Nancy Pelosi and Larry Summers on the blunder of "targeted, temporary" tax cuts. Mr. Bush began playing business favorites for ethanol and green energy fads. Republicans in Congress spent like Democrats and protected Fannie Mae and the housing lobby. And Mr. Bush and most Republicans embraced an easy-money Federal Reserve that favored Wall Street and asset bubbles at the expense of real middle-class incomes.
Coming from outside Washington and with his business background, Mr. Romney can make the case for an economic restoration that corrects the mistakes of both the Bush and Obama eras. He can join with the younger generation of GOP reformers—in the states and on Capitol Hill—to pursue an agenda that promises to fix our ailing public institutions, wean Wall Street from Washington, and create more opportunity for all Americans.
This does not require a daily recitation of Paul Ryan's House budget. But it will require more policy content than the gauzy American exceptionalism that Mr. Romney offered in his Tuesday night speech. His remarks had the right tone, the necessary optimism and some nice lines, such as the rebuke of politicians who end up "spreading poverty" in the name of spreading the wealth. But the speech was policy-free. To be credible, a reform agenda has to have some reform substance.
To offer one example, Mr. Romney might as well go on offense on Medicare. This will no doubt horrify Stuart Stevens and his other advisers, since entitlements are supposed to be a Democratic strength. But it's not as if Mr. Romney can dodge the argument.
He has already endorsed enough of Mr. Ryan's premium-support plan to have to defend it, and Mr. Obama is vulnerable with his Medicare cuts and unaccountable rationing board that are part of ObamaCare. Mr. Romney won't win the election on Medicare, but even a draw will be a political victory. Leading on the debate will show voters he is willing to take on difficult issues and give him a reform mandate if he wins.
One of Mr. Romney's trickiest challenges will be how to handle Mr. Obama's, er, veracity. More than any President we've seen, this incumbent is willing to say things that aren't in the area code of the truth. Thus he gives himself credit for the natural gas drilling boom, the deficits are still Mr. Bush's fault, Mr. Obama has never raised taxes, and "green jobs" in his dream economy are blooming by the millions.
Mr. Romney can't let the President get away with this, or Mr. Obama will conjure a vision of unreality that enough voters might believe. The challenger has to find a way to mock the mirage of an "economy built to last" without sounding arch or personal. He needs his version of Reagan's "there he goes again."
For all of his challenges, the most important political news is that Mr. Romney has a fighting chance to win. The incumbent's accomplishments are unpopular and the economy is failing average Americans. To win the GOP nomination, Mr. Romney has shown reserves of tenacity and discipline. To win the White House, he'll need to show a larger vision and the nerve to pursue it.