How Mitt Can Win
Romney might win or might lose adhering to his current approach, but one thing is sure: he would a win bigger, for him and the nation, with a different one.
With apologies to everyone who thinks the Etch-a-Sketch simile captures the right's problem with Mitt Romney, I'd suggest that a much better explanation is to be found in an interview-based analysis by the always sensible Stephen Hayes. Hayes reveals Romney as essentially "risk-averse," the result of being beat up in past campaigns for being too specific. Romney's consequent 2012 approach, according to Hayes, "goes a long way to explain why some conservatives have been reluctant to embrace his candidacy. They want a list. They want it to be long, they want it to be detailed, and they want a candidate who is not only willing to provide one but eager to campaign on it[.] ... That's not Mitt Romney. It never will be."
Anybody who has spent any time watching Romney in public situations that he does not control -- like serious interviews and audience/heckler give-and-take on the campaign trail -- will have noted a certain hesitation accompanied by a fleeting, deer-in-the-headlights "get me out of here" look, and sometimes a nervous laugh as the candidate formulates a response. Sometimes these responses have been quite effective, but regardless, the gun-shy Romney will never be called a happy warrior. Having convinced himself that he can't be what he regards as too specific, Romney has erroneously determined that the only alternative is a half-crouching defensive posture, especially with the example of opponents who seem to delight in stepping into messes of their own making constantly before him. The result: for many, Romney's tentative demeanor, based on an arguably false dichotomy, suggests not excessive caution, but rather lack of conviction. Romney might win or might lose adhering to his current approach, but one thing is sure: he would a win bigger, for him and the nation, with a different one.
There are good reasons beyond Romney's skittishness to accept the validity of his conviction that he should avoid specific "plans." Probably the best one is that the candidate who harps on "my 103- point plan" more times than not is peddling a fantasy, since in politics as much as in war, plans rarely survive the first shot or first legislative committee session. Presidential candidates' detailed "plans" more than anything else debase the political currency because they are functionally meaningless. They do, however, reveal the candidate's underlying assumptions and beliefs. So if Romney is afraid of "lists" and specifics, and if plans are phony anyway, why not just skip to the assumptions and beliefs and find compelling -- and yes, relatively safe -- ways to campaign on them? Properly presented, a campaign aimed at revealing a set of carefully identified and framed assumptions and animating beliefs can provide the substance conservatives demand and help extend the candidate's appeal beyond the conservative base at the same time.
What do I mean? One example might be a thoughtfully opportunistic response to what will likely be some nasty Occupy shenanigans this summer. While condemning rape, aggressive mass public defecation, and whatever other enormities are committed, Romney can admit that it is bad for all of us when a large proportion of our friends and neighbors feel like forgotten suckers. In response to the Occupiers' real or pretended grievances, he can acknowledge that what had been articles of faith, like the value of homeownership and the wisdom of sacrificing to attain it, have been upended by events and by policy. He can, in response, advocate for a vision of equality and community consistent with American values, and identify the genuine threats to equal opportunity and economic growth presented by this administration's crony capitalism, intrusive regulation, unprecedented executive overreach, and disregard of the rule of law.
He can deplore the fraudulent K-12 and baccalaureate "educations" perpetrated by Obama's allies in teacher unions and the higher education establishment, which have condemned so many ill-prepared Occupiers to unemployability, and the consensus pricing and promiscuous predatory higher education lending, abetted by federal policy, that drowns these same Occupiers in debt. He can embrace a broad-based vision for a renewal of American education that includes equal status to and equal support for preparation for skilled and technical careers as to conventional four-year colleges. No lists, no plans, just "what I believe and how I think it can help me address the problems that concern you."
Likewise, Romney can grasp the opportunity presented by Obama, Axelrod, Plouffe & Co.'s inevitable class envy attacks on him as an occasion to condemn the sclerotic legacy society that is emerging in place of what had been a unique American model of broadly shared values and social and income mobility, as noted in a revealing American Spectator piece by F.H. Buckley. He can, with little risk, identify the ways in which progressive social policy has abetted this shift. He can call hypocrisy hypocrisy and lies lies, and nary a list is needed to lay out a "severely conservative" general framework for Romney administration policy. By so doing, Romney would augment the thin gruel of his current "I have been in business and know how to fix things" platform and begin to establish the outlines of a Romney mandate that will be a lot more useful than his resume should he actually manage to beat Obama.
And one more thing: Mitt, if you find yourself campaigning in Tennessee, avoid the temptation to recite the lyrics of the Disney Ballad of Davy Crockett again. Did the same genius who dropped the Etch-a-Sketches on you suggested that lead balloon? If you must mention Crockett, you could most safely note how you will follow his injunction: "First be sure you're right, then go ahead"? If you want to be a bit more adventurous, you might note Crockett's opposition while in Congress to lawmakers' use of public funds for acts of charity, or his principled opposition to his fellow Democrat President Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy. Being risk-averse does not have to mean being John McCain II.