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Competing Campaign Strategies

In a previous post, I offered my thoughts on the outlines of President Obama’s re-election strategy — energizing minorities and others comprising Obama’s liberal base; appealing to college-educated white women; and vaporizing Mitt Romney. Assuming that’s correct, what should be the elements of an effective counter-strategy? I’d argue there are three.

The first is to win The Battle of the Narrative.

Barack Obama’s political fate is similar to that of Robert Frost’s hired man, who had “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

In Obama’s case, he has no record he can defend and no governing vision he can offer. All he has to rely on are diversions and divisions. The president wants to make this campaign about anything except his record on the economy. Team Obama will therefore try to get the Romney campaign to follow them down a half-dozen different rabbit holes each week. We’ve already seen this with the so-called “war on women,” Sandra Fluke v. Rush Limbaugh, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the Buffett Rule, Bain Capital, Occupy Wall Street, attacks on oil speculators, and more.

It will require considerable discipline by Romney to ignore the dust that Obama is throwing in the air and return attention to the economy. Sometimes that won’t be easy; events (like the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden) intervene. And the president still has unparalleled ability to direct the conversation of the nation. But Romney has on his side the sentiments of the public, which by overwhelming margins believes the economy, jobs and the budget deficit are the most important issues facing the country. He has the advantage of being able to talk about what the public wants to hear.

During the next five months we’ll be witness to an epic push-and-pull, with both sides not simply putting the same issues in different frames, but trying to create entirely different campaign conversations. Whichever campaign narrative prevails will go a long distance toward determining which candidate wins the presidency.

The second ingredient for a successful counter-strategy is a governing agenda that is commensurate with the challenges of this moment.

Given the astonishing record of failure by the president, there will be a tendency among Romney’s advisers to be cautious when it comes to offering an ambitious and concrete set of proposals that would define a Romney presidency. That’s understandable but ultimately unwise.

The public needs to be convinced that Romney poses a governing vision that goes beyond generalities and his own biography. This is a moment of unusually large challenges in America and unusual seriousness in politics; the former Massachusetts governor should embrace an agenda — and articulate an underlying theory — that provides people with what a Romney presidency would look like.

Readers of COMMENTARY know I’m somewhat partial to a governing agenda that reforms our crumbling public institutions. Our health-care and entitlement system, tax code, schools, infrastructure, immigration policies, and regulatory regime are badly out of touch with the needs of our time. Each of these public institutions needs to be improved and modernized, requiring structural reforms on a large scale. That’s but one option for Romney; there are others.

Here, as in so many areas, Ronald Reagan is a model. He ran against Jimmy Carter’s dismal record – but he also ran on a bold agenda in economics (supply side) and national security (rolling back Soviet Communism in lieu of detente).

A third element to a successful Romney campaign is tone and countenance.

Among the most durable public attitudes in 2012 will be the disposition to vote against President Obama, who is viewed by many Americans as a decent fellow but an inept president. Governor Romney can fortify that inclination and impression in how he carries himself. Especially given the sulfuric attacks coming his way, Romney’s task is to present himself to the public as sober, reassuring, and measured – a safe choice during a turbulent time. As the president’s campaign becomes more desperate, the charges will become more splenetic. This will afford Governor Romney the chance to appear more dignified and presidential than Barack Obama.

Every presidential campaign requires adjustments along the way. But it also needs a strategy for success and someone who can point the campaign towards its magnetic north in the midst of the daily battles. We know, I think, what the Obama campaign will consist of. How the former Massachusetts governor responds may well determine whether he becomes America’s 45th president.

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