GOP Already Backseat Driving Romney Campaign

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Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It seems awfully early in the campaign for campaign-strategy kibitzing, but Republicans are already leaning into the front seat to tell Mitt Romney what he should be doing differently. The New York Times reports on a host of Republicans fretting over the “angry tenor” of Romney’s campaign. Likewise, the Wall Street Journal editorial page urges Romney to be more positive. (And also, um, more mean: “One of Mr. Romney's trickiest challenges will be how to handle Mr. Obama's, er, veracity. … Mr. Romney can't let the President get away with this.")

Campaign backseat driving, as a rule, tends to be crap. There is a grain of truth here. In any incumbent election, voters tend to have pretty firm opinions about the incumbent. The campaign dynamic therefore hinges largely on the acceptability of the challenger. (Obviously, if the incumbent is popular or unpopular enough, the challenger’s standing doesn’t matter much.) The 2004 election, an election that seemed to revolve almost entirely around defining John Kerry, offers a good illustration. An incumbent hanging around the 50 percent approval mark will tend to devote his energy to disqualify the challenger, and the challenger will tend to focus on building himself up.

The problem for Romney’s campaign is that his staff is built to run a negative campaign.

Jason Zengerle’s fantastic profile of Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s all-purpose guru, underscores how and why his campaign has behaved as it has. Fehrnstrom is tabloid hit man by trade, a cynical man who is filled with resentment at the liberal swells. He excelled at crafting a series of attacks against Romney’s parade of Republican challengers, knocking each of them off one by one. But a big-picture visionary he clearly is not. The undercurrent of early criticism probably reflects the fact that Romney's main advisers are not deeply rooted in conservative-movement ideology.

An additional problem is that Romney doesn’t have a politically attractive vision to offer. The Journal counsels him to move beyond his gauzy paeans to capitalism and American greatness and instead embrace the Paul Ryan agenda more specifically. Of course, Romney had to embrace the Ryan plan to make it through the primary, but his campaign pretty clearly grasps that this is a liability, and the more closely he’s tied to its specific policies, the worse he’ll fare. A bold and centrist agenda might work — say, an embrace of a Bowles-Simpson type of plan, perhaps coupled with some alternate proposal to ensure universal coverage. But the Ryan plan precludes that.

The Journal also argues that Romney should inoculate himself from the inevitable charge that he represents a return to the Bush era by attacking Bush’s record from the right:

Before Mr. Obama's stimulus, Mr. Bush joined with Nancy Pelosi and Larry Summers on the blunder of "targeted, temporary" tax cuts. Mr. Bush began playing business favorites for ethanol and green energy fads. Republicans in Congress spent like Democrats and protected Fannie Mae and the housing lobby. And Mr. Bush and most Republicans embraced an easy-money Federal Reserve that favored Wall Street and asset bubbles at the expense of real middle-class incomes.

The interesting thing about this isn’t the political-advice aspect. It’s that the Journal is really giving away the game on the right-wing hysteria against Obama. After all, the point here is that many of Obama’s policies truly are a continuation of traditional bipartisan approaches. Republicans (including the Journal) have spent more than three years decrying Obama’s plans to destroy American freedom with a nefarious new agenda of profligacy and crony capitalism. Here, they’re basically admitting that Obama is just doing stuff they all considered, at worst, a minor annoyance until he proposed it. For better or worse, the party that’s departing from long-standing tradition here is the GOP. I don't know if it matters much one way or another politically, but it's quite an admission.