Mitt Romney isn’t dead, of course. But he’s in bad shape, and tonight’s debate is the last hopeful event Republicans have been waiting for to keep them from delivering his campaign to a hospice. Debates can move the polls, and often some random event — an exchange, sighing, a gaffe — can shape the media coverage and change the narrative of the race.
But failing a dramatic moment or viral meme, Romney is probably going to be hurt, not helped, by the debates: He’s defending an unpopular platform and an unpopular party.
In our poll-drenched landscape, the most underplayed poll numbers are the public’s continuing preference for the Democratic party. The most recent Washington Post poll has the public looking favorably on the Democratic Party by a 49–42 margin, and unfavorably on the GOP by a 53–39 margin. That 21-point gap in party approval doesn’t tell you everything — it probably hides a lot of disgruntled tea-party conservatives who will ultimately vote for the Republicans — but it tells you a lot.
Today’s NPR poll gets at this dynamic another way. It tests a basic Democratic message (“we tried that top-down approach. More tax cuts for the rich and outsourcing American jobs doesn't work,” etc.) against a basic Republican message (“His stimulus package failed to create the jobs he said it would, wasted billions of dollars on pork barrel projects at home … ”). Fifty-three percent preferred the Democratic argument; 42 percent preferred the Republican argument.
Now, this partisan backdrop is splashed against a foreground of a grinding recovery and a widespread sense of anger and disappointment. The latter is Romney’s primary — really, his only — asset. Romney’s dilemma is that people know the economy stinks and they feel angry. To the extent that the events of the campaign center their choice not around this feeling of disappointment but the specific choice between Republicans and Democrats, it hurts Romney.
That would be the best explanation as to why the conventions boosted Obama at Romney’s expense. Yes, Democrats put on a better television show, with well-crafted speeches by Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton rather than a rambly old man arguing with a chair. But the conventions also framed the election as a series of policy choices where the Democrats have the upper hand. The debates won’t necessarily focus on that — they may turn out to focus on some crazy flub or hand gesture that makes it onto Saturday Night Live. But to the extent they do, it won’t help Romney. His plan really is a return to Bushonomics, and people really don’t like that.
The remarkable fact is the degree to which the Republican Party remains cloistered in total denial about this problem. The primaries were a process of committing Romney to every point of the party dogma, with no attention at all to the problem of separating him from the unpopular ideological baggage of the Bush years. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, one of the more powerful ideological commissars of the conservative movement, is a classic example. The Journal’s editors harried Romney relentlessly during the primary into adopting its favored policy of income tax rate cuts. Romney complied, prompting a bouyant Journal editorial predicting it would “help Mr. Romney politically.” Of course, it has proven a catastrophic failure, because Americans don’t want to cut taxes for the rich. Today’s Journal has another editorial bitterly blaming … Romney, for failing to sell the cut-taxes-for-the-rich message vigorously enough:
Mr. Romney's larger failing is that he hasn't even tried to sell his own proposals, much less their broader pro-growth, practical and moral foundations. Sometimes he's added to the public confusion, such as his defensive concession in Ohio a few days ago that voters shouldn't "be expecting a huge cut in taxes, because I'm also going to lower deductions and exemptions."
Who could have seen it coming?
Romney's best hope is to detach himself from his party as best as possible. And here is where the 47 percent video really blocks his exit. He does not have a great gift for feigning sincerity. Romney may want to convince Americans that he truly cares about them, but a candid video of him speaking to his donors with evident passion will seem like a more authentic expression of his real views. And, given the state of Romney's party, justifiably so.