the national interest

Republicans Advise Mitt: Attack! Defend!

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the Associated Builders and Contractors National Board of Directors meeting at the Arizona Biltmore February 23, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. Romney is campaigning ahead of the Michigan and Arizona primaries that will be held on February 28.
You want me to do what? Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Over the last few days, Mitt Romney has seen his business experience, which began the campaign as his primary qualification, turn into something perilously close to a scandal. It’s now time for a recurrent phase in the campaign called Republicans Give Advice to Mitt Romney. Attack! Defend! Show us your taxes! (The last category, I would note, consists entirely of people who have never seen Romney’s taxes.)

Most campaign advice falls into two broad categories, each with its own cliché. One cliché is: When You’re Explaining, You’re Losing. The argument here is that attempting to rebut the details of attacks simply allows the campaign to remain on your opponents’ chosen terrain, so you must avoid any such arguments, deflect attacks, and turn to your own themes. The second main cliché is Never Let an Attack Go Unanswered. This supposed cardinal sin is to decline to respond to an opposing charge.

Of course, the two clichés point in opposite directions, which suggests that, when a campaign hits a stretch of rough media or bad polling, there’s a ready-made argument to show why it obviously blundered.

Bear this in mind when assessing advice like this, from Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Walker hails from the large wing of the party that fervently wishes Romney would abandon his larger strategic goal of letting the campaign be a referendum on the state of the economy and instead run more explicitly on the Republican Party’s own proposals.

More openly embracing Paul Ryan (whose ideas have taken over the party’s policy apparatus) would help change the argument, at least momentarily. But of course if he did so, Romney would be running exactly to the place Obama was trying to chase him. I speculated this last month, and Greg Sargent did actual reporting to help confirm it: The main point of the attacks on Bain is to soften up Romney for the final argument about policy. The Ryan budget, with its tax cuts for the rich and massive cuts to the social safety net, is so far out of line with public opinion that many undecided voters have trouble believing that Romney would do such a thing. Defining his biography is a way to set up that argument.

Walker insists, “Always be aggressive, moving forward. You’re always better moving forward.” But probably not if you’re moving forward straight into the trap your opponent has set.

That’s probably why Romney is instead responding by returning to his go-to attack, which is to assail Obama as a “crony capitalist” for continuing longstanding policies of subsidizing green energy. (This is also how Romney replied to the last wave of attacks on his tenure at Bain.) It’s not the silver-bullet response anxious Republicans are demanding. That’s because the silver-bullet response does not really exist.

Republicans Advise Mitt: Attack! Defend!