Why Is the Romney Campaign Acting So Antsy?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 17 2012 8:03 PM

Details, Details

Mitt Romney’s campaign claims there is nothing to worry about. They are only trying something entirely new.

Romney.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney

Photo by David Calvert/Getty Images.

Monday, the Romney campaign held a conference call to address a need that it says doesn't exist. Senior adviser Ed Gillespie explained that in the coming weeks, Mitt Romney will offer more policy details. Last week, Romney aides dismissed conservative pundits who had called for that very thing. A senior aide told me only lazy cable-network hermits worried that Romney wasn't being specific enough. Today, Gillespie presented the move as a natural evolution required by a reasonable electorate. Voters “are looking for ‘how is this going to make my life better?’ ” said Gillespie. "We also know that they'd like to know more about specifics. We are going to meet that demand."

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.

The Romney campaign is either getting antsy or the candidate and his advisers have suddenly decided to remake their low-risk campaign into one that is aggressively entrepreneurial. This is the second time in less than a week that the Romney campaign has launched a bold gambit. Last week, when turmoil erupted in the Middle East, Romney decided to criticize the president amid the early rounds of chaos. Now he's not only changing course but also making the unusual move of announcing the course correction.

Why all the activity? Romney aides insist it has nothing to do with polls. While some national polls show Obama leading, and some polls in battleground states look that way too, aides point to the Rasmussen poll and the Gallup tracking poll that show Obama’s post-convention bounce disappearing. They also say this new tack isn’t a response to the criticism that arrived Sunday in a Politico article, which amounted to a turducken of nitpicking, stuffed inside a hefty helping of carping, wrapped in a shell of sniping.

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But if the new aggressive posture is not tinged with a whiff of panic, the campaign will have to come up with a more plausible rationale. Because, for much of the campaign, the Romney team has responded to these criticisms with a reassuring placidity. Steady as she goes, has been the response. As of today, a few more people are rushing toward the boiler room. (And late Monday it was all hands on deck. A video surfaced showing Romney writing off the 47 percent of the country that plans to vote for Obama as shiftless government leeches who don’t pay income taxes; having the candidate offer such a precise percentage was not what the campaign meant by specificity.)

The move to specificity is welcome. For starters, perhaps it will nudge the president along. (What are those long-term plans for Medicare anyway, sir?) But this is not the Romney campaign’s first go at this. When Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate, aides heralded the choice as a bold plan to run on a specific set of ideas. The conservatives who had been complaining during the early summer saw the Ryan pick that way, too, and started writing opinion articles praising Romney’s boldness. But then Ryan didn’t campaign so much on brave new ideas as much as on Obama's flaws. That prompted another bout of complaining from conservative wise men last week.

So what can we expect from the Romney campaign this time? One possibility is that this whole pivot to specificity could be nothing more than a sop to pundits. It is a time-honored political trick to announce a move to do a certain thing and then hope that announcing the move absolves you from having to actually make the move you're heralding. Obama administration aides have repeatedly sounded off about their boss’s “pivot to jobs,” for example.

Another possibility is that Romney finally starts making the pitch for his policies that connects with people’s hopes for the future. Gillespie explained that is what Gov. Romney would do in new ads, speeches, and briefings. So when he says that the United States is going to be energy independent by 2020, he'll explain that he'll get there through approving the Keystone pipeline, offering more drilling rights for offshore exploration, and lifting the moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. 

No one should mistake this gambit for a self-administered truth serum. If that were the case, Gov. Romney would start campaigning on a detailed explanation of how his premium support plan for Medicare would actually work, the assumptions behind it, and how—other than simply asking us to trust him—he’s going to maintain quality while lowering health care costs. That’s a standard the Obama campaign would like him to meet—be so specific that we can savage you, please. But no modern politician is going to go that far into the fine print, including President Obama.

On the other hand, if your running mate has a detailed set of plans for transforming Medicare and Social Security in his jacket pocket (as Paul Ryan does) and you choose to only get specific about energy policy, then you’re trying to hide something.

We also shouldn't expect any more specificity on how Romney will get his budget numbers to add up. When Paul Ryan was asked what loopholes he would close, he said the campaign would offer only a "framework" that they would then work out after the election. This showed a wise understanding of how legislation works, he argued. Gov. Romney didn't want to present Congress with a plan and simply ask them to pass it. He wanted Congress to have a role. If we take this argument at face value, then Ryan has offered a nearly identical rationale for vagueness as President Obama. Though, when the Obama administration argues for "frameworks," they are ridiculed for a lack of leadership. 

Mitt Romney’s move to specifics is almost as bold as his move last week to blame the president for the violence in the Middle East that led to the death of four Americans in Libya, including the U.S. ambassador. A Pew poll suggests that gambit hasn’t worked so well for the moment. Only 26 percent of those following events in Libya approve of Romney’s handling of the issue. Perhaps he’ll have better luck with this strategy, though he doesn’t have much time. There are only a couple of weeks until the first debate and just 50 days until the election to make policy differences clear. That’s not much time. Then again, to be fair, a week ago some in the campaign didn’t think they needed to wrestle with these issues—at least, not specifically.