Mitt Romney brought a Kindle Single to a knife fight. Today he unveiled a 59-point plan for reviving the economy. It runs 160 pages, and is available for immediate download on Amazon. It was an attempted show of force. On the issue voters care about, he is the man with the plan because he comes from the business world.
Rick Perry has an economic plan that fits on the fingers of one hand. With his other hand he's throwing punches. This weekend Perry said Romney didn't create many jobs as governor. He defined Romney's private-sector experience as creating jobs overseas. A few weeks ago, Perry reflected on their life experiences and concluded that he came from the real world: "I didn't work at Bain Capital. I didn't work on Wall Street." Three attacks—on competence, class, and country of origin. The best rebuttal Romney could offer: Unlike Perry, he's not a career politician.
If Romney were a career politician, perhaps he'd still be the front runner. Until now, Romney has benefitted in this campaign from restraint. He has ignored other candidates and stayed focused on Obama. His opponents have foundered. Romney's initial strategy was to let Perry suffer this same fate. That hasn't happened, though Perry's first debates are still ahead of him. Instead, Perry has launched pungent attacks on Romney's core selling point: that his business experience makes him the most qualified to be president. Now Romney either has to get aggressive or lose his best weapon.
This isn't just about scoring cheap political points (though, alas, that is what campaigns are about). It's about winning the argument at the heart of the GOP primary. The competition in the GOP race is about which man has the better set of skills for improving the economy. So far Romney has acted as if it is self-evident that his private-sector background makes him the better candidate. It hasn't worked. What's he going to do about it? There's been a lot of talk about leadership in Washington recently. How Romney responds now will tell us something about his leadership style. Will he take action in defense of his central campaign claim? Will he rebut Perry and make a stronger case for the skills he has, or will he let events and others shape the field? Will he lead, or lead from behind?
Today Romney's economic plan won the Kinko's primary. His handout was glossier and bigger than Perry's will ever be. That isn't going to help him win the GOP primary. Nor will the substance of his plan. There is nothing particularly novel in all of those pages. It's standard Republican fare—lower marginal tax rates, less regulation, stronger trade, and less spending. Rick Perry would disagree with little of it. That's why his spokesman, Mark Miner, aimed his spitballs elsewhere: "As Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney failed to create a pro-jobs environment and failed to institute many of the reforms he now claims to support."
The debate in the Republican Party is over which man can actually do the things they promise. Romney starts with a disadvantage. The numbers are against him. As governor he created jobs, but not as many jobs as Perry has in Texas or Jon Huntsman did while he was governor of Utah. In a Web ad released today, Huntsman pointed out that Massachusetts was 47th in job creation while Utah under Huntsman was first. Huntsman doesn't threaten Romney the way Perry does, but his attack on the same front adds weight to the case that Romney couldn't translate his success in business into governing. *
Romney can explain that his situation in Massachusetts has to be seen in context. He faced tough conditions—a Democratic legislature that was against him—and he can argue that without his perseverance taxes would have been increased and the job market would have been worse. But to Republican voters, this just sounds like excuse-making—the same excuse-making they bash President Obama for.
Romney is never going to win a button-pushing war with Perry. Perry talks about Wall Street and foreign jobs to appeal to voters' gut feelings. When Romney talks about "career politicians," he's trying to do the same thing but he doesn't have the knack for that kind of attack. Voters don't seem to mind Perry's experience as governor. To the extent that people associate politicians with changing their views to fit the moment, that's Romney's problem more than Perry's.
Romney does have a sharper case to make about his good attributes, but he doesn't make it very strongly. Romney's best argument is that he has a turnaround talent at a time when that's what's needed. According to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 81 percent of people think the country is headed in the wrong direction, the highest that number has been during Obama's presidency. Romney turned around companies while at Bain Capital, turned around the Utah Olympics, and redirected liberal policies in Massachusetts. He doesn't just merely have business skill: He has skill at taking on complex systems, diagnosing their problems, and getting as much as he can out of them.
This message may be too nuanced for political debate, but Romney can make it better. He talks about having led in the private sector but voters have to infer too much about what that means. To compete against Perry's gut-level arguments, Romney has to be explicit about exactly what a "career politician lacks," or, if that's too combative, he has to make the clear case about why his specific turnaround talents match the moment. It's a bit of an egghead argument, but it's close to what presidents do: making complex arguments in combative situations. If he can pull that off in the primary, Romney will have made a strong case that he is prepared for the job.
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Correction, Sept. 7, 2011: This article originally misspelled Jon Huntsman's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)