Mr. Romney's speech last night after his sweep of 5 Republican primaries was probably his best of the campaign so far. His handlers are doing the right thing in my view of making this a referendum on the President. Gone was the blustering red meat and ridiculous assertions that Barack Obama was taking us down a socialist path and no mention whatsoever of social issues such as contraception or religion. Instead, he focused on the economy, and I think that is the winning message for Mitt Romney. Romney has a long way to go, but it is early and his campaign has a chance to rectify some of the blunders and miss-steps he and the Republicans have made during the primary season.
I believe there are four critical factors the Romney campaign must consider if they are going to defeat the President this November. Each must be dealt with effectively and must above everything else, show competence in execution and a movement towards the center of the electorate.
Factor 1. Romney must stay on the economic message. He has consistently described the last four years as a failure of Obama's economic policies. He has consistently said the President doesn't understand the economy and that he, with his business acumen is the right guy to get our economic engine going and lead us to the promised land. He's countered data showing economic recovery with what I believe is a good response: The economy would have been even better had President Obama not futzed with it... OK, these are good talking points and he should keep going with them. The problem Mr. Romney has in this space is twofold. One is his record. Yes, he became a successful businessman during his career at Bain Capital. He, as we have all been told "saved the Olympics" from organizational and economic troubles. He was a governor. The issue with his record is that once his record is highlighted, as it was to a small degree in the primary campaign, he doesn't come off too well. A set of very weak Republican challengers tied Mr. Romney up in knots by characterizing him as uncaring and unfeeling technocrat who didn't care about the by-products of his actions, many of which resulted in business closings and people losing their jobs. When governor of Massachusetts, his record on job production looks remarkably like the President's. Coming into office in 2003, Massachusetts was sitting at 49th place in terms of job growth. By 2007, the state had improved to 36th. Not great, but not bad. There's not much difference in terms of policies that Romney implemented and what the President has done since coming into office. So, essentially, that's a push in terms of governance record. The other big comparison is in legislative achievement. The singular legislative achievement for both Romney and the President has been health care legislation. Indeed, the two candidates get much closer in this comparison than any other issue. The two plans are essentially the same, and by rights, Romney can declare himself as the architect of the President's Affordable Care Act. This was a stick that Gingrich, Santorum, and everyone else on the list of Republican candidates beat him senselessly with. The question on Mr. Romney's governance record is will it cause some fall-out of the base? Does he keep all the of the red-meat, Tea Party acolytes he pandered to during the campaign? If so, then he has a chance of broadening his base by pulling some independents who might be much more moderate than the base, but are still disenchanted with the President. If not, it spells trouble. If he cannot hold his base and get them out to vote, then his chances for supplanting the President diminish quickly.
The other issue about his record is his Private Sector record. To be sure, Mr. Romney has been a successful businessman. However, his success is not of the "Henry Ford or Bill Gates or Steven Jobs" model, it is of the Michael Milken, Carl Icahn and George Soros model. Mr. Romney comes off to 50 somethings like me as Snidely Whiplash and Gordon Gecko, to younger people as Mr. Burns from The Simpsons". One person I know once described Romney as the "Guy who looks like the guy who just laid you off, and now he's asking for your vote to lead the country telling you he will make everything right". If this perception of Romney cannot be countered, and I think to many people that Romney must win over fall right into the category of those middle class people who were laid off, it becomes a very tough sell for him to win.
Can he overcome his perceived issues here to beat the President? Yes, he can, but he has to come forward with a vision that is more than "an updated version of the George W. Bush economic plan", as his plan was recently described by a member of the RNC. Reading his "plan" on his web-site for economic recovery leaves one fairly cold to the idea that if implemented the benefits he describes will redound to the middle class. This is another critical gap he must overcome, and describe in concise and clear terms how his plan helps the middle class recover jobs, improve their economic standing and lessens their economic stress, and fundamentally how it differs from the President's plans.
Romney is a classical Technocrat, one who is considered a good manager, and that has been a consistent mantra of Republicans for years in that we need good management in the Oval Office. This is a strength of his and he should continue to use it. By articulating a clear vision for economic improvement and describing how he will lead in contrast with the President he can use this to great advantage during the campaign.
Factor 2 - Repairing the damage done by the Republicans with the women in this country. Mr. Romney has consistently stumbled with this issue, and it could be a mortal injury to the Republicans that they cannot recover from. If they are to have any credible chance with women voters, Mr. Romney must show he is in touch with women's issues. He's recently gotten a gift from the Democrats with Hillary Rosen's unfortunate comments about Ann Romney. However, that gaffe aside, Romney and the GOP are in an abysmal place with women. The "gender gap' between Obama and Romney is huge and if Romney cannot close that gap by November, he will lose. To be successful in repairing the damage done, Mr. Romney must continue to focus on economic issues that affect women. This however will not be enough. He must find a way to connect with women in a way that he has not been able to do so far. It must be a personal connection, and not through a surrogate like his wife or Governor Nikki Haley, one of his supporters. Romney has to show he understands what women are going through and have a Bill Clinton moment where he can convey a sense of "I feel your pain" like Clinton did. If he cannot overcome the damage done to women by the GOP he will lose. If he can, and he is successful with his economic message, he'll have a good chance to become the 45th President of the United States.
Factor 3 - Another major voting bloc that the Republicans have damaged is the Hispanic vote. People who are Hispanic, while not a homogeneous group, are definitely interested in immigration reform. Romney has to date shown poorly in his plans to deal with this issue. Romney would do well to come out in favor of legislation like the "Dream Act". It would cost him little in the base (the true-believers in this space are a small contingent of voters that would never go over to Obama anyway) and possibly pull a large percentage of the Hispanic vote in his direction. For Republicans, he needs to get about 40% of that voting bloc and he's polling in the high-teens right now. This is dangerous territory because Romney is much farther away from the Hispanic community than George W. Bush was, and his views on immigration are very vague with respect to what he would actually support as President.
Factor 4 - Foreign Policy is the final of the four factors that I believe Romney must deal with effectively in order to unseat the President. He will have a very difficult time contesting the President's decisions militarily and in the fight on terrorism as Mr. Obama has done very well in this regard. The area of Foreign Policy Mr. Romney needs to focus on goes back to his core strengths: The economy. Europe is having serious economic issues with countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal all having significant problems to the point it is dragging the Euro down and causing the EU to drive rather draconian austerity measures into these troubled economies in order to stave off another recession or worse. Romney could do well in this space as he has a fairly good understanding of capital management and how to "turn-around" troubled organizations (e.g. Olympics, Domino's Pizza, etc.). This is a potential strong card for Romney to play as the economic distress in Europe is not going away anytime soon and it could reach our shores damaging and slowing our fragile recovery. If Romney can come up with some credible views and perspective on how to deal with Foreign government's economic relationship with our country that would play well with the electorate. To date, he's stumbled in this area as well which is surprising. His commentary on China has drawn significant criticism from his own party. Jon Hunstman, a former opponent and now endorser of Romney called candidate's statements toward China "unfortunate". As far as the military aspect of our Foreign policy is concerned, Mr. Romney has not developed a coherent message on Afghanistan or Syria. He has probably not said much on this subject at the behest of his advisers and while, right now, that may be smart, Foreign Policy always comes up in a Presidential election and Mr. Romney needs a sound view on what to do with our troops.
So there you have it. My view of what Mr. Romney needs to do to win the election. I think, assuming we have no major change in the economy (good or bad), no major event that threatens our security, and basically in November, things look pretty much like they do today, it will be a very, very tight race. The President is a very capable and formidable campaigner, and Mr. Romney is not. Mr. Romney would do well not to try and "campaign" like Obama or Clinton or Reagan, but more like Eisenhower. To be sure, Eisenhower was a war hero and Romney is not, but Ike was not a great campaigner, but his leadership skills came across and convinced the country he was the man for the job and a better choice than the hapless Adlai Stevenson, interestingly enough another politician from Illinois.
Romney is no Ike to be sure and Stevenson was no Obama, so the analogy may not be fair. However, if Romney is to win, it must be on his chops as a leader. Because as a politician, he's pretty bad.
Tell me what you think,