It's no secret by now that the week following the Supreme Court's decision on Obamacare has not been GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney's best. And infuriatingly enough, it is precisely the week that should have been Romney's best, given that the decision itself mobilized his base in a way that it hasn't been mobilized pretty much since the general election began, a fact which has been compounded by the President's recent job numbers. Yet Romney's messaging on Obamacare has been confused at best, and his arguments regarding the job numbers have shown a stunning inability to gain traction.
This failure on Romney's part has left even pundits who are ideologically in his corner confused and worried, as a Fox News panel today showed when conservative luminary Charles Krauthammer said frankly that if Romney couldn't use moments like this to his advantage, he would not only lose the election, but deserve to lose it.
"Romney's inability to bring home the argument," Krauthammer sighed, "is simply incomprehensible. If he can't make the argument, he doesn't deserve to win the election."
The root of Romney's problem, according to Krauthammer, is a failure to make the correct ideological arguments while also failing to connect current economic misery to President Obama. This latter problem is especially harsh, given that the President is doing his utmost to draw a line, however flimsy, between Romney's past with Bain Capital and the woes of average voters today. In stark contrast, as host John Roberts noted, Bill Clinton was able to unseat a sitting President on a narrow economic message even at a time when the economy was getting better precisely because Clinton was so charismatic.
Of course, Romney can be accused of many things, but charisma is not one of them. Which may explain why Krauthammer's co-panelist Steve Hayes made the argument that Romney's essentially myopic focus on the economy is hurting him, since voters have already worked out that the President is bad for the economy, and may be looking for stronger, more values-based arguments to motivate them. Neither Krauthammer nor Roberts nor Roll Call's David Drucker (the third panelist) necessarily differed with this claim, though Drucker noted that criticism of Romney may be premature, given that his campaign has yet to really get on the rails after the primary.
Nevertheless, this obvious display of a lack of confidence in the ability of a major party's nominee to persuade voters should trouble the Romney camp, especially given similar comments by conservative pundit Bill Kristol:
The economy is of course important. But voters want to hear what Romney is going to do about the economy. He can "speak about" how bad the economy is all he wants—though Americans are already well aware of the economy's problems—but doesn't the content of what Romney has to say matter? What is his economic growth agenda? His deficit reform agenda? His health care reform agenda? His tax reform agenda? His replacement for Dodd-Frank? No need for any of that, I suppose the Romney campaign believes. Just need to keep on "speaking about the economy."
The Romney campaign will answer that they're imitating Bill Clinton in 1992, who famously focused on "the economy, stupid." But Bill Clinton was a full spectrum presidential candidate, with detailed policy proposals on welfare reform, health care, education, and foreign policy. He also made real efforts to convince the voters he was different from the losing Democratic candidates who preceded him ("a new kind of Democrat," "ending welfare as we know it," a hawkish-sounding foreign policy, Sister Souljah, etc.). So far, the Romney campaign doesn't resemble the Clinton campaign. It seems to be following more comfortably in the tradition of the five post-Cold War Republican presidential candidates who preceded Romney. They received 37.5 percent, 40.7 percent, 47.9 percent, 50.7 percent, and 45.7 percent of the vote, respectively. The average GOP presidential vote in these last five elections was 44.5 percent. In the last three, it was 48.1 percent. Give Romney an extra point for voter disillusionment with Obama, and a half-point for being better financed than his predecessors. It still strikes me as a path to (narrow) defeat.
Kristol and Krauthammer both slamming Romney at once this way are a solid warning sign, and one that Romney cannot afford to ignore if he wants to end the reign of Barack Obama.