With just over 30 days before most of us go to the polls, Mitt Romney has struggled so badly through this general election that even now his conservative allies are asking basic questions about his policies, his convictions, and his temperament.
It’s very late in the game for a politician to be trying to fill in those kinds of blanks on their resume. But Romney is still a plausible contender for two reasons: because the economy is funky and Barack Obama is intensely disliked by about 40% of the country.
How can Romney eke out a win? Let me join the army of volunteer advisers urging their wisdom on the Republican. Here is my three step plan for a Romney-Ryan victory in November.
1. Be believable and serious. One of Romney’s chief arguments is that Obama is a media celebrity poser, with no real ideas for a second term. The premise here is that we might like Obama — and most polls show that a majority of Americans do — but he’s not competent or effective.
The problem is that Romney’s two major policy proposals, reforming the tax code and repealing Obamacare while preserving its most popular features, are entirely implausible, or have been sketched so cursorily that no one can take them seriously.
Romney has promised to cut taxes by 20% without ballooning the deficit. If he wants to be viewed as the grown-up in the room, the competent alternative to Obama, he has to show us the math. Otherwise, he’s just name-calling. And voters smell that kind of thing.
In Paul Ryan’s interview with Chris Wallace, you could see him struggling to craft a plausible narrative for how these things might work.
So get serious. Put together a simple, workable explanation for how you reform health insurance and manage taxes that actually adds up. If you can’t, then you’ve talked yourself into an ugly corner, crippling your own most effective attack on the president.
2. If your heart is in the center, be a centrist. At this point, it’s a little hard to know for sure, but my sense is that Romney is a fairly moderate Republican, even if he has tilted to the right a bit in recent years.
If that’s true, relax and let it shine. Find a nice, moderate issue that you care about — creating a legal path to citizenship for undocumented workers maybe? — and talk about it.
As things stand, Romney has ceded an enormous amount of the middle to Obama, posing as more hawkish than the Democrat, more ferocious on immigration, more ideologically rigid.
George W. Bush managed this balance far better with his “compassionate conservatism,” his focus on public school education reform, and his expansion of the drug benefit entitlement for seniors.
The bottom line? This isn’t the primary any more. It’s time to lead your movement back toward the center, where American elections are (still) won.
3. Work harder and have fun.
Obama can afford to take a few days off to prepare for debate prep. He can afford to do more fundraising events on some days than big campaign rallies. He’s winning. You — on the other hand — have to run, fight, shout, beg and laugh all at the same time.
It’s been a long time since you had to really hustle. The day after the election, you might be America’s CEO, but for the next 35 days you’re the guy in the mail room trying to win a second look from the folks who might just give you a promotion.
So go for it. And don’t worry about making mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes. Even great campaigners screw up, and you’re not a great campaigner. So swing for the fence and laugh, publicly, at yourself when you stumble.
The truth is that this thing’s a long shot. Always has been. You can — and very will might — win Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia — and still lose.
Guys walking that kind of tightrope can’t afford to play it safe.