The Mitt Romney campaign is gearing up for a general election race in which it will have some clear advantages. The most important is that the economy remains the decisive issue for most of the public. That plays into Romney’s hands, because most Americans rightly perceive the country’s economic health has declined on President Obama’s watch, and because the former Massachusetts governor’s fiscal expertise is his greatest strength. But in spite of that edge, the Romney camp knows the steepest obstacles to a Republican victory are not factors that are susceptible to the candidate’s powers of persuasion.
In the past few weeks, as Romney was wrapping up his party’s nomination, he received a thorough education on his opponent’s most formidable assets: the ability of the mainstream liberal media to set the public agenda on the issues of the day and the power of incumbency. As the bogus theme of a Republican “war on women” as well as the anniversary of the Osama bin Laden killing demonstrated, President Obama retains the power to put the GOP on the defensive almost at will. This means the true challenges for the Romney campaign will not be whether they can prevent their standard-bearer from committing gaffes, their skill in overcoming problematic issues like RomneyCare or even uniting an obstreperous conservative movement behind his candidacy. It will be in fending off a ferocious assault from a chattering class dominated by the left and avoiding being left on the sidelines as the president effortlessly dominates news cycles.
The so-called war on women theme was thoroughly debunked by Contentions’ Alana Goodman in the latest issue of COMMENTARY. The lesson here is not so much the charge that Romney and the Republicans are attacking women’s rights is wrong as the way the story developed. It shows how quickly a weakness for the president — the way ObamaCare was being used to discriminate against the Catholic Church violated the principle of religious freedom — morphed into a disaster for the right simply because Rush Limbaugh made an offensive quip.
The willingness of a broad consensus of mainstream media outlets to accept the liberal spin of this fake issue should concentrate the minds of both the Romney people and conservatives on their dilemma. Allegations of liberal media bias don’t win elections, but successful counter-attacks against spin offensives will make the difference between victory and defeat for the Republicans. That was demonstrated by the subsequent ability of the conservative blogosphere to turn Obama adviser Hillary Rosen’s attack on Ann Romney into a defeat for the Democrats that had them on the defensive for days.
But a perhaps an even greater problem for Romney is the one that every challenger to a sitting president must learn to live with: the power of incumbency. Being the president as opposed to just running for the presidency carries with it the capacity to make decisions or to create events that can dominate news cycles and reduce even the savviest opposition candidate to a helpless bystander. The president’s trip to Afghanistan on Tuesday is a classic illustration of how even the most hapless of administrations can command the undivided attention of the public. The event, in which the president signed an agreement with the Afghan government, was a skillful way of bringing up the bin Laden killing anniversary without the sort of foolish attacks on Romney that undermined the administration’s obsessive focus on the episode in the last week. Instances of the use of the power of the presidency like this are virtually bulletproof. Nothing Romney could say or do could diminish the impact of the president’s largely unremarkable speech. And even if there were flaws in Obama’s handling of the issue, the bin Laden anniversary helped bring home to the GOP that this wasn’t the best moment to bring them up.
Of course, along with the advantages that come with incumbency are some drawbacks. Obama can play the commander-in-chief any time he wants but along with it comes a measure of accountability. Speeches in front of the troops in a military setting are always political winners. But that also means it is impossible to blame others when things go wrong. If, as appears likely, the virtually non-existent economic recovery continues to falter as gas prices rise this summer, no amount of presidential posturing will enable the president to shift the blame for the state of the nation from his own shoulders.
A pliant and even obsequious media and the power of incumbency should be a foolproof formula for an Obama victory. But they will be of little use if Romney and the GOP persuade Americans they must cut short a failed presidency.