The line from Romney headquarters last month was “every day we’re not talking about the economy is a day we lose.” This line, which came from the highest reaches of the campaign, was proffered to explain the unwillingness to provide substantive details on a host of policies besides the economy. Well, Romney HQ isn’t talking about the economy these days. It’s talking about the ad that all but accused Romney of murdering a woman with cancer. It’s talking about its vice-presidential pick. It’s talking about whether its ad accusing the president of gutting welfare-to-work laws is accurate. Guess what? It turns out you can’t just talk about the economy when people—and the media—want to talk about something else.
The polls suggesting he’s seven or nine points behind are surely wrong, but given that there is only one national poll that shows him ahead, we have to presume Romney is behind. He should presume he’s behind. And given that there’s no good reason whatever for Obama to be leading, one can only presume that Romney’s strategy in July and now in August is not working.
Which is why the “we only talk about the economy” line, while superficially clever, was and is so foolish—stupid, even. Of course Romney wants to focus on that one issue. It’s the one that hurts Obama the most, and the one on which he seems to score the best. He and his team have an idea about the campaign. They need to win independents to win. Independents are less ideological. So don’t press the ideological buttons. Keep it simple. Keep it plain. Obama has hurt you. I’ll help you. Fine.
But that’s not the only reason they’re doing it this way.
Romney and his people prefer this strategy because it’s what is most comfortable to them. He is not, at root, an ideological person. Neither, at root, are they. And the data suggest this is not a time for a sharply ideological campaign. The data suggest Romney needs to run as Mr. Fix-It. That is how Romney prefers to view himself. So the two match perfectly.
Alas for him, that’s not how it works. If conservative ideology is a problem with some independents, it also has the virtue of providing those who use it to discuss the nation’s problems with a pulse. Romney has just learned over the past few weeks that he cannot limit the discussion to the topics he wishes to talk about, especially when his rival is spending $100 million trying to destroy him in the swing states and when the media are largely serving his purposes by acting as though an increase in the unemployment rate and utterly unimpressive jobs-creation numbers are somehow good news.
So here’s why he should be talking about other things, releasing plans, giving speeches on big topics—because it’s the only way he can control the discussion. If he says the same thing about the economy every single day, he bores. He provides nothing new for anyone to fix on. He has to feed the beast. And it can’t just be that he puts his toe gingerly in the welfare-reform pool one day and then defend himself for three days after. It all has to keep moving.
In any case, if he doesn’t start putting things down on paper and develop the themes in speeches and get specific so that there is some meat on the bones of his policies, what on earth is he going to talk about for the next 88 days? Whether or not he killed a woman? This is a race he should be able to win, so if he loses, it won’t be because Obama won it. It will be because he lost it—and we’re seeing exactly how that might happen right now.