Why Conservatives Panic Over Mitt Romney Every Four Weeks

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 11 2012 7:32 PM

Mitt Romney Panic Syndrome

It happens every four weeks. Conservatives get a very scary feeling that Mitt Romney is blowing this election for all the wrong reasons.

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Mitt Romney's vagueness about what he would do as president helps neither party

Photo by David Calvert/Getty Images.

Mitt Romney is enjoying at least the fourth public loss of confidence by conservative elites since winning the nomination. The first came in June when Rupert Murdoch and others complained that he was not taking the fight to Barack Obama. Then in July, he was faulted for thinking he could skate to victory by running only as the anti-Obama. Then in early August, GOP veteran voices again counseled against the passive campaign and urged Romney to be bold by picking a vice president with some substance. Now the fever arrives again from a variety of conservative quarters that he is not giving voters a reason to vote for him

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

If you were a medicine man, you might notice that the fever comes on hardest at the start of every month. Perhaps it is triggered by soft monthly jobs reports. The view may be that given the persistently glum economic news, even an area rug could beat the incumbent. Romney should be doing better, so: panic. As George Will put it recently: "If the Republican Party cannot win in this environment, it has to get out of politics and find another business." Whatever the reason behind the outbreaks, campaign wizards at Romney's Boston headquarters should start mixing the October poultice now.

At the heart of the critique are two points: Romney is not taking the fight to Obama and he's being too vague about what he would do as president. The first seems wrong. Romney's welfare ads are tough. The "you didn't build that" criticism has been persistent and hard. Paul Ryan has traded away his reputation as a policy wonk and become an attack dog. That's an expensive trade. Romney is not slow on the attack. When the Democratic platform omitted any mention of God, Romney accused Obama of taking Him off the dollar bill. Perhaps what people like Donald Trump want is for Romney to make personal attacks the way the Obama team does. That's possibly dangerous. More voters have an unfavorable view of Romney than favorable, so Romney is probably wise to not go as far as the Donald would like. (Life rule: It’s generally a good idea to stop short of what Donald Trump thinks you should do.)

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There is more merit to the knock on Romney's vagueness. If Romney doesn't get more specific, they may not find him appealing enough to leave Obama. That would be bad for Romney and Republicans, of course, but there may also be a way in which Romney's lack of specificity is bad for everyone. If Romney doesn't get more specific, whichever party wins will have no mandate for governing. If Romney wins, his lack of specificity will mean he has no mandate. If Obama wins, Republicans will conclude that the president didn't prevail in a contest of ideas; he simply defeated a bad politician, which will make them no more likely to cooperate with him. 

When Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan he put the doubters into remission. For a moment, they thought he was going to get specific and run on the ideas that Ryan championed. Romney and his aides sold the decision this way, too. But this was not to be. As George W. Bush's speechwriter Michael Gerson writes, "Romney’s message is untouched by his running mate’s revolutionary fiscal realism. Romney chose Ryan, not Ryanism."

Romney's advisers and the candidate himself have long believed that actual specifics are deadly. All they do is give your opponent an opportunity to attack you. Why do that when you're still out-polling by double digits among independent voters and down by just a point or two in the polls overall? That is a reasonable view. Obama has a similar view about specifics. He's been forced to be more specific as president than as a candidate, of course, but ask him for his long-term plan for Medicare and you are likely to never get that invitation to play basketball that you've been waiting for.

The "you're so vague" complaint may be an attempt to put a label on a longstanding and harder to categorize challenge that has clung to the Romney candidacy: He can't close the deal. In the primaries, he had a hard time knocking much weaker rivals like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich out of the race. Now he's having a harder time of it against Obama, a weak president whose campaign is not terribly inspiring. 

Still, Romney might win. But if he does, what will he have won? A mandate for his policies? Almost certainly not. Polls show that people don't trust that Romney is on their side or that his policies will improve their lives. They're not likely to give him much leeway to enact his plan to alter their lives through sweeping spending cuts, overhaul of the country's health care system, and reconfiguration of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. "Winning the next election without having really prepared the country and rallied the country to do some big things would be a huge lost opportunity," said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels months ago. After Wisconsin Democrats failed to oust GOP Gov. Scott Walker in a recall vote, Walker publicly advised Romney to become more specific about what he would do as president. So far Romney and Ryan have only been specific in naming Obama's flaws. When Ryan says he welcomes the fight over Medicare, he really only means that he welcomes the opportunity to criticize his opponent.

Political scientists are skeptical about the power of an election mandate to convince the country to go in a direction it isn't inclined to go. Just because you won an election doesn't mean people are sold on all of your ideas. But Republicans don't see it that way. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at the convention that a leader changes the polls, he doesn’t let the polls change him. If that's that case, a candidate has to convince people about the plans he intends to enact. Voters can’t just intuit these things. 

If Obama wins, Romney's lack of specifics will rob Obama of the leverage he might gain from truly vanquishing the GOP’s ideas. Republicans will conclude that Romney lost because he was a bad candidate and didn't sell conservative principles. There will be no reason to back down in future fights with the president because the ideas undergirding their beliefs won't have been discredited by a Romney loss—only Romney will have been discredited. Tea Party activists will draw this conclusion as well. The ideas didn't lose; the candidate did, in part because he didn't stand up loud and proud for conservative ideas. Any Republican politicians who compromise with the president or backs down on conservative principles will have a target on their back in the next election cycle. Anyone who shrinks from a fight will be considered no better than Mitt Romney. 

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