There’s a bit of a panic raging in the conservative commentariat today with twin columns from the Weekly Standard‘s Bill Kristol and the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board urging Mitt Romney to correct his course. President Obama just won the biggest court case in a decade and the slowing recovery hasn’t made him bleed in the polls just yet. So serious voices on the right are telling Romney to get his act together. Their suggestion: be more specific specific.
The Romney campaign thinks it can play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it’s Mr. Obama’s fault. We’re on its email list and the main daily message from the campaign is that “Obama isn’t working.” Thanks, guys, but Americans already know that. What they want to hear from the challenger is some understanding of why the President’s policies aren’t working and how Mr. Romney’s policies will do better.
The biography that voters care about is their own, and they want to know how a candidate is going to improve their future. That means offering a larger economic narrative and vision than Mr. Romney has so far provided. It means pointing out the differences with specificity on higher taxes, government-run health care, punitive regulation, and the waste of politically-driven government spending.
The economy is of course important. But voters want to hear what Romney is going to do about the economy. He can “speak about” how bad the economy is all he wants—though American are already well aware of the economy’s problems—but doesn’t the content of what Romney has to say matter? What is his economic growth agenda? His deficit reform agenda? His health care reform agenda? His tax reform agenda? His replacement for Dodd-Frank? No need for any of that, I suppose the Romney campaign believes. Just need to keep on “speaking about the economy.”
First a note about the pure politics: If by “playing it safe,” the Journal means “unflinchingly implementing a strategy of using a bad economy against an incumbent,” then I’m not sure what the problem is. Are they wishing he’d throw a curveball like, say, suspending his campaign so he can focus more on the crisis in Europe? Do they really believe that if only Romney talked more about block-granting Medicaid that voters would prostrate themselves in adoration when his motorcade drives by? (Paul Ryan may have that effect on editors at the Journal or the Standard, but I’m not sure it’s a universal phenomenon.)
These columns have the politics all twisted: Romney’s job is to make the election about Obama, not himself. Polling suggests that voters prefer Obama’s stance on taxes to Romney’s and trust the President more on health care. Romney already has an edge on the economy among independents. Why risk messing that up? It’s Obama who’s pulling for a choice election. Romney is better served by a referendum. And if conservatives feel the economic case against Obama isn’t working, they may only need to wait a few months.
But the specificity debate also inevitably leads to another question: Isn’t it bad for the country if Romney remains vague about what he would do as President? Joe, for one, argues the answer is yes. I agree that it’s important for voters to have enough information about two candidates’ competing visions to make an informed decision. And there are some policy areas in which Romney hasn’t provided enough detail. But hyper-specific policy platforms are not necessarily tonic for the Republic.
With some notable exceptions, Presidents tend to enact exactly what they promise during campaigns. This is a feature of democracy, not a bug. But if politicians crafted every single detail before they took office, the end result might just be a shoddy product. Think about it: During a campaign, the first thing on a politicians’ mind is winning, and nine out of ten guys in the room are campaign strategists, not wonks. That’s not an environment that’s likely to produce good policy. Congress, especially the House, where election season is practically continuous, is also hyper-political. But it benefits from having a big staff of policy experts on hand and guidance from a seated President who is looking to create a legacy. Presidential campaigns are all horse race.
It might be counterintuitive, but just as widely abhorred negative campaigns can be more informative, moderately vague campaigns allow for more measured policy planning. That’s not to say reporters shouldn’t push Romney to provide more details about what he’d do as President. They should. But the fact that he isn’t shouldn’t be viewed as an existential crisis for his campaign or the nation.