I’ve always thought that one of the most annoying aspects of running for President must involve the amount of unsolicited advice you get. Everyone thinks they’re a political genius who sees the obvious angle no one else “gets.” A story in Thursday’s New York Times featured an anecdote in which the right-wing news mogul Christopher Ruddy complained that Romney showed an obvious “lack of interest” in his advice about how to schmooze other conservative pundits. The story implied that Romney is a bad politician. Or maybe he’s just sick of hearing everyone’s half-baked ideas all the time. Regardless, Romney has never been barraged with more advice than right now, in this moment of crisis for his candidacy. Just flip on any cable talk show. In the new issue of TIME, Mike Murphy chimes in with his own two bits — although as a seasoned operative and someone who has advised Romney before, he delivers some of the best analysis and counsel I’ve read. Romney would do well to consider it. Much of the other advice coming his way, however, isn’t very good. And so my only counsel is that Romney ignore most of it. Here are three things in particular that Romney should not do if he wants to salvage his listing candidacy:
Don’t lurch right! Conservatives are pressing Romney to adopt more, shall we say, severe issue positions. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, has been pressing him to present a revised tax plan that would offer deeper tax cuts on wealthy Americans’ investments. But taxes are a losing issue for Republicans right now, which is one reason House Republicans just caved on the payroll-tax cut. Romney’s current tax plan, which offers huge high-end breaks, will already be a hard sell in the fall; he needn’t make it any harder. The same goes for several other issues, from entitlements to immigration, on which he might want to outflank Rick Santorum but which could make him even less popular with independents. As I’ve argued before, Romney wants to be just conservative enough to win this nomination, so that he stands a chance of getting elected in November.
Don’t roll out a “new Mitt”! Murphy argues that Romney should “stop thinking and calculating and get stupid.” I take him to mean that Romney should display more heart, spontaneity and authenticity. That’s fine, but it actually has to come from the heart — not some version of his heart that’s displayed to a focus group and then edited and revised for public consumption. It has to seem natural because it is natural. A conspicuous “reinvention” would only make Romney look desperate and ridiculous and would underscore his existing air of inauthenticity. (Although I’m afraid the real Mitt can be pretty silly too.) No new campaign slogan, wardrobe, theme song or calculated demonstration of some previously unknown charming hobby — say, an Angry Birds addiction. Romney should be especially careful about trying to retreat from his established image as a successful businessman, as some people have advised. Competent management is his calling card; if it’s not the right year for it, then too bad. The obvious alternative subjects — governing Massachusetts, serving as a Mormon missionary in France — are hardly the answer.
Don’t stop attacking! Having witnessed the way Romney pulverized Newt Gingrich with attack ads in Iowa and then again in Florida, Santorum is trying to turn Romney’s negative tactics back against him. It’s true that Romney’s unfavorables have shot up, one natural side effect of negative campaigning (though there are other potential explanations as well). But once he’s dispatched his last serious rival, he can recover with a stretch of relentless positivity. And there’s good reason to think harsh advertising can save him again. Santorum may lack Gingrich’s operatic liabilities. But his record is less pure than many Republicans must assume. Santorum was rarely criticized in the debates, after all, and has never been the target of a sustained negative ad campaign. He’s also a former Senator, and Senators make for especially fat targets, with their long voting records that are far easier to lampoon than to defend. (For instance, Romney is now ripping Santorum for repeatedly voting to raise the debt limit, something Congress did routinely for years; never mind that Romney himself almost certainly would have wound up doing the same thing if he’d beaten Ted Kennedy in 1994.) And a little damage will go a long way. Romney trails Santorum by only a few points nationally but by perhaps 10 points in the new showdown state of Michigan. Gingrich was at least as strong at his peak. Rombo should use his financial advantage to blast away; he’s sure to damage Santorum far more than himself. And if that doesn’t work, well, don’t ask my advice …