How Can Romney Bounce Back?

National Review editor Rich Lowry is not kind to Mitt Romney’s instantly infamous comments from a private gathering with fundraisers: “The overall impression of Romney at this event is of someone who overhead some conservative cocktail chatter and maybe read a conservative blog or two, and is thoughtlessly repeating back what he heard and read.”

On that note, I’m increasingly convinced that the Romney campaign is beset by a clueless overconfidence about the election. How else do you explain a campaign that did nothing to sell its candidate as a positive figure, and is unable to respond to new attacks or crises? They have the skill, but it’s obvious they don’t see the necessity. After all, their operating assumption has been that, once voters tune in to the election, they’ll flock to Romney on account of the poor economy. When the campaign continues to insist that “the reality of the Obama economy will reassert itself as the ultimate downfall of the Obama Presidency, and Mitt Romney will win this race,” they’re relying on this crude economic determinism.

Of course, conditions aren’t that bad. As plenty of commentators—including myself—have explained, voters are judging the economy relative to where it was when Obama entered office. In other words, they’re grading him on a curve. And because the economy is on a slow upward trajectory, that gives him a slight advantage going into the election.

This should have been key to Team Romney’s understanding of the race. Incumbents are hard to beat—in general, it takes disaster or decline for Americans to vote against a sitting president. They’re more resiliant still when the economy is growing, even if it’s in fits and starts. Regardless, Republicans were—and are—right to see this as a winnable election. With a decent candidate and a detailed campaign, Team Romney stood to win over voters dissatisfied with Obama’s performance. But an honest look at the last six months will show a campaign that hasn’t really tried. With few exceptions, they’ve been focused on their base, to the exclusion of undecideds and swing voters. All the while, Team Obama has been doing its best to paint Romney as a rapacious plutocrat, and to contexualize the economy as good enough for Obama to deserve reelection.

At this point, the odds are against Romney. But there’s still time for his campaign to build new support and win the election. To do this, however, it needs to shift its view of the race. For starters, it needs to understand where voters stand in relation to the economy and President Obama. They aren’t convinced that he’s a failure—only that his approach hasn’t worked yet. Key to winning them is a real explanation of how the next four years would unfold under a President Romney, and what he would do to correct the course set by Obama. Give voters real detail, and they’ll reward you with trust.

In addition, the Romney campaign needs to disabuse itself of the Right’s spin on Obama. Since he entered office, conservatives have disparaged Obama as a lightweight and a weakling; an affirmative action hire who can’t stand up to our enemies, and can’t stand up for himself. I don’t know for sure, but judging from the tenor of his attacks on Obama’s foreign policy—“He apologizes for America!”—my guess is that Team Romney has internalized this baseless critique of Obama.

If Romney is interested in rebooting his campaign, he should recognize this portrait of the president for what it is: bullshit.

There’s a lot to criticize about Obama’s approach to governing—with Republicans, he’s been a lackluster negotiator, and on civil liberties, he’s been risk-adverse to a disasterous extreme. But in the ring of electoral politics, the one thing to remember about Obama is that he is a ruthless campaigner. In 2008, he ran a relentless and negative campaign against Hillary Clinton—attacking her as an agent of the status quo, presenting the Clintons as racially biased—and escaped with an even better reputation than he had going in. Likewise, against John McCain, he ran a huge number of negative ads. All the while—and to the intense, self-destructive frustration of his opponents—he maintained a positive aura.

Think of it this way: In 2008, a half-term senator with little name recognition defeated, in this order, a former nominee for vice president, the most powerful Democratic machine since the Kennedy’s, and a decorated, well-known war hero. And, on top of all of this, he was an African American man with a dictator’s middle name and a last name that rhymed with “Osama.”

There’s simply no world in which Barack Obama isn’t an incredibly tough opponent, and anyone running against him has to understand this in their bones. It’s clear that Romney doesn’t.

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