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Mitt Romney Searches For A Former Clarity: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Sept. 14

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One of the essential charges that's been levied at Mitt Romney by Team Obama Re-Elect is that he has, thus far, refused to offer any specifics in terms of the policies he would, as president, engender and support. Not that they'd be thrilled to learn what those are -- the simple fact of the matter is that Obama and his affiliated allies among the ranks of campaign surrogates and super PACs have enjoyed a prolonged period of filling in that vacuum. But the new wrinkle, as we enter the period of time between the pageantry of the political conventions and the presumed-to-be-somewhat-substantive debates, is that now Romney's nominal GOP allies are starting to get tweaky over Romney's vagueness.

As Salon's Steve Kornacki documents, Romney took multiple hits on this at the beginning of the week. Here's George Will, for example, seeking clarity on Romney's tax-cut math. Here's Trent Lott insisting that Romney "does need to be clearer about what his vision is and what he would do." And the Wall Street Journal's editors this week opined:

Mr. Romney’s pre-existing political calculation seems to be that he can win the election without having to explain the economic moment or even his own policies. As this flap shows, such vagueness carries its own political risks.

By "this flap," the Journal editors are referring to Romney's recent appearance on "Meet the Press," where he insisted that he was going to "replace Obamacare" with his "own plan." That plan, of course, is completely ethereal -- he's never actually specified what it entails, probably because he's already come up with a health care reform plan, and it's the one he now opposes. So, on "Meet the Press," he went a little weak in the knees: "I'm not getting rid of all of health care reform. ... Of course, there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I'm going to put in place. One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage."

The ensuing reaction was, essentially, "Oh, really?" and that propelled the Romney campaign into a bewildering 12-hour period in which they walked back, walked around, and eventually came up with just a promise to maybe keep insurance companies from dumping "individuals with pre-existing conditions who maintain continuous coverage." Which, while swell, doesn't fully address the full problem.

But Romney's health care specifics -- or the lack thereof -- are just a hot flash amid the dull throb of discontent over his vague economic prescriptives. These are the specifics for which the establishment GOP commentariat yearns. Let's recall that the highest esteem in which conservatives held Romney came when he chose Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. (You should also recall that the Ryan pick immediately turned conservatives around on Romney. Prior to the Ryan announcement, the Romney campaign was getting pilloried for spokeswoman Andrea Saul's complimentary statement on Romney's Massachusetts health care reform.) There was a clear reason for this -- unlike Romney, Ryan does have a set of well-codified policies to tout, and in selecting Ryan as his 2012 partner, Romney was initially seen as having executed a skillful merger and acquisition of everything Ryan represented. The problem is, it didn't last. Rather than bringing specificity to Romney, the partnership has only really brought Romney's fog to Ryan.

As Kornacki points out, the "fog" is a campaign tactic:

The strategy that Romney has been following all year depends on a lack of specificity. His campaign long ago decided that their best bet would be to position Romney as a generic protest vehicle, someone sufficiently inoffensive and competent-seeming to attract economically anxious swing voters who want to kick President Obama out.

Thus does Romney mainly speak in broad generalities about the leadership he’d provide as president and the outcomes he envisions (More jobs! Better healthcare!) while avoiding details as much as possible. This pattern even continued after he teamed up with Ryan, who now insists he's running on "the Romney plan," and not the much more specific budget blueprint he himself crafted earlier this year.

As Kornacki points out, if this strategy was working, it's not likely that anyone would have a problem with it. But it's not. And that's a growing concern on the right. Writing for the New York Post, John Podhoretz complains that the Romney camp is "too intent on winning over the small batch of uncommitted and independent voters by saying absolutely nothing that might possibly offend them," and, as a result, he's not doing anything to "stimulate the enthusiasm of those already in his corner."

Unsurprisingly, Podhoretz's prescription is "more substantive nutrition in the form of substantive policy addresses, position papers, etc." Newt Gingrich's advice -- and it's good advice, so it's too bad Newt wasn't getting the going rate for celebrity Fannie/Freddie historians for offering it -- is much the same: "I think the question is can he clarify and make clear what he's trying to accomplish? ... Romney's got to make the case in a compelling way for a Romney recovery."

There was also this sad, ranty lamentation from Pat Caddell, who is pretty aggrieved that the Romney campaign isn't more awesome:

"There is a missing case, and I watched Romney yesterday, I watched Romney yesterday, I swear to God, there is no urgency to this man. He is running, as I said this morning, bored," Caddell observed.

"And the fact of the matter is, we're heading for a major crisis. You see it coming. 'Here are the three or four things that I'm going to do; we must make a change.' He has no message other than 'I'd like to win and by the way I have a secret formula.' He may still win with his, but not if Obama's at 50% approval," he added.

"Their strategists from the beginning have decided -- I just, you know, can't say enough bad things about them. They are incompetent, that believe that you can sit and the election will automatically come to you. And that they don't respond. They never sold Romney with the message that we talked about for months, and I'm sorry to the audience out there. It's not the American people are stupid, your candidate is stupid," Caddell said. "They never gave his message of who he is."

But if it seems like madness that Romney won't clarify his policies on the economy, there may yet be method in it -- the clarification may end up alienating a broad swath of the support Romney needs. Matt Yglesias pretty much nails this predicament:

Romney's plan isn't like that. It's not unclear, it's ambiguous. Enacting the rate cuts he wants and then fully making up the revenue would entail a large middle class tax hike. Enacting the rate cuts he wants and avoiding a large middle class tax hike would blow up the deficit. Those are pretty different policies and it's impossible to tell from the campaign thus far which one Romney is saying we should expect from him. Are we getting the Bush-style closet Keynesian, or will the new austerity fad continue on the right?

Yglesias takes us back to the "Chait or Weisenthal Scenario" situation we've explicated in the past here in the Speculatron. Jonathan Chait posits that Romney's election will spur the GOP to enact austerity along the lines of Paul Ryan's entitlement-decimating budget plan. Joe Weisenthal wagers that Romney's election will simply reset the GOP's typical tendencies when they are the party in power -- they run big Keynesian stimulus, run big debt, and deploy Ryan as the guy who'll smooth all that over with the unruly House caucus. It's an interesting divide: On one hand, Romney can score a huge ideological victory for the conservative movement; on the other, Romney can score a huge political victory for the GOP.

But choosing in advance of a Romney inauguration has obvious perils, hence the vagueness. The austerity plan may not win over independent voters. The Keynesian plan may repulse Tea Partyers. Our guess is that these concerns form a big part of the Romney campaign's tactical decisions. But the debates may force the issue.

WRONG, BUT STRONG: When Mitt Romney opted to sound off on the goings-on in Egypt and Libya, that, too, brought a lot of discontent from conservatives. What it won't bring, however, is much of any long-term political cost, at least not from his base. And you certainly aren't going to have to witness another Pat Caddell mope-aria over it.

Right about now, you may be confused. "But Romney's statement was wrong in its timing, and essentially libelous in its content." Both of these things are true. "And lots of conservatives piled on with criticism," you point out. Also true. But this is a different beast entirely, and it's going to probably end up a net win when the whole news cycle on the matter gets sorted out by Sunday morning.

Let's acknowledge, though, that Romney took his fair share of shots. And Ben Smith was quick to call around and collect a parade of dismay from various conservative foreign-policy hands, including one with a keen sense of timing, who dubbed it a "Lehman moment," referring back to John McCain's ill-fated decision to "suspend" his 2008 campaign to do some vague stuff about the financial crisis. Speaking of McCain's 2008 campaign, Smith spoke to one "former aide to Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign" (for what it's worth, we basically operate from the assumption that all anonymous former McCain aides are actually Jon Huntsman campaign manager John Weaver), who said that it demonstrated that Romney was "not ready for prime time."

But as Jon Ward points out, this criticism was somewhat muted by dint of the anonymity. For those on the record, the battle was basically a draw: Ward collects favorable reactions from Ari Fleischer, Richard Grenell and Bill Kristol, to offset the criticism that was being heaped on Romney from Peggy Noonan, Tom Ridge and Mark Salter.

When the conservative commentariat gathers to chew over this story on Sunday morning, which group will they most sound like? Our guess is the former. (Peggy Noonan included.)

The crucial thing to note about all of this is that however wrongheaded Romney's response was when you consider its underlying sense and sensibility, making sense was never the point of the response -- rather, it was about making hay. And for all the vagueness of Romney's policy proposals, the political tactics of his campaign are nothing if not specific. As Greg Sargent reports, the statement Romney offered was carefully crafted and set up to fit into the campaign's larger counter-narrative that depicts President Obama as an "apologizer" and a "sympathizer" with America's enemies.

So Dave Weigel is right: This was not a gaffe. And it follows along that old Bill Clinton maxim: "When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right."

Also, remember how a minute ago we were talking about John Podhoretz's complaint that the Romney camp wasn't doing enough to "stimulate the enthusiasm of those already in his corner"? As Alex Pareene points out, Romney's statement on the embassy attacks is designed to reverse this:

A considerable portion of the electorate hates and distrusts Muslims, a considerable portion of the electorate thinks Obama secretly adheres to or is at least suspiciously "sympathetic" to Islam, and headlines and images of extremists attacking Americans abroad make for a perfect opportunity to capitalize on those feelings. A nuanced, accurate and fair criticism of the Obama administration would've appealed to, well, the sort of people to whom nuanced, accurate and fair criticisms usually appeal: liberals.

Romney clearly went too far, and the fact that his campaign apparently has no idea where the line is when it comes to how much they can "get away with" before the press starts calling them disgusting should still worry Republicans (there was a way to get this "Obama is weak" point across without blatantly lying and explicitly accusing Obama of sympathizing with killers!), but an attack on Americans by irate anti-American Muslims abroad is the sort of thing that will make certain voters more, shall we say, sympathetic to the candidate who is more shameless about hating Muslims. Romney understands this and is willing to capitalize on it.

Besides, in the wake of the hullabaloo caused by Romney's statement, Mark Halperin tweeted, "Unless Mitt has gamed crisis out in some manner completely invisible to Gang of 500, doubling down=most craven+ill-advised move of '12." And if Mark Halperin thinks you've cocked up, you've probably actually succeeded. (Romney's statement got a standing ovation at the Values Voter Summit on Friday, by the way.)

IS THE ECONOMY JUST GOOD ENOUGH FOR OBAMA? When was the last time you actually heard some good economic news? Here's a hint: It wasn't this week, when the Census Bureau released its annual deep-dive into poverty in America. In 2011, the Census determined, household incomes had declined for a fourth straight year. Income inequality grew wider -- the "only income bracket to see its income rise at all was the top 20 percent, by 1.6 percent." And even in this post-Lilly Ledbetter era, the wage gap between men and women remains as gaping as ever.

There's not much there for an incumbent to hang his or her hat on, and yet, in President Obama's case, the economy has not yet been the albatross that everyone expected it to be. This week, national polls showed Obama fairly consistently in a statistical tie with (and the suggestion that Obama may be slightly ahead of) Romney on the matter of "who would do a better job handling the economy."

As much as we celebrate any time the conventional wisdom is hunted down and mercilessly killed in this fashion, it does raise the question: "What gives?" Part of that question, we think, we've already answered: Romney's decision to vague it up has prevented voters from clearly seeing the path he'd take out of the miasma.

The other part of the answer, perhaps, comes from Joshua Tucker, who reminds us of what his fellow Monkey Cager John Sides said before the conventions:

[W]ithout any dramatic trend the resulting balance of economic indicators is favorable for Obama, though not strongly so. This is, in part, why the forecasting model that Lynn Vavreck, Seth Hill, and I helped develop for Wonkblog, suggested Obama would win. Lynn and I reach the same conclusion with an elaborated forecasting exercise in "The Hand You're Dealt." This is, in part, why forecasts that build in economic indicators -- as at 538 and Votamatic -- suggest the same. And yet people still think Obama should be losing because of the economy. That is simply not the case. The state of the economy does not guarantee him victory but neither does it presage defeat.

Of course, election models: Everybody's got one, and they aren't all predicting an Obama win. And an important thing that Sides underscores, "the fundamentals do not tilt strongly enough toward Obama to make the outcome a foregone conclusion." And you know what? They won't tilt that strongly any time soon. So we shall not be surprised if Obama's recent polling success comes back down to earth in the coming weeks. But we won't shift from another opinion, either -- that a GOP candidate more talented than Romney could have put this election away by now.

RON PAUL WILL HAVE HIS REVENGE ON THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE: So the Republican National Convention happened, and they took great pains to silence the voices of dissent from the Ron Paul supporters, as well as enshrining a bunch of new rules to prevent a future Paul-esque effort from hacking the primary season in the way the Texas congressman's presidential campaign did over the course of the early months of 2012. So the Paul threat to Romney is now well over, right? HA, GUESS AGAIN, DOOFUS:

At least three Republican electors say they may not support their party's presidential ticket when the Electoral College meets in December to formally elect the new president, escalating tensions within the GOP and adding a fresh layer of intrigue to the final weeks of the White House race.

The electors -- all are supporters of former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul -- told The Associated Press they are exploring options should Mitt Romney win their states. They expressed frustration at how Republican leaders have worked to suppress Paul's conservative movement and his legion of loyal supporters.

Ahh, yes, faithless electors. They have a long, but mostly trivial history in American politics, without much of an impact on election results. One (sort of) exception came in 1836, when Virginia's electors conspired to deny their support to Martin Van Buren's vice presidential pick, Richard Mentor Johnson, because they disapproved of Johnson's having sired children with an African-American woman. (Virginia: not actually for lovers, of all varieties!) Virginia's faithless electors forced the Senate to vote to elect Johnson, which they eventually did.

More recently, in 2000, an elector from the District of Columbia named Barbara Lett Simmons withheld her vote for Al Gore as a protest over the District's lack of representation. Twenty-four states have a "variety of rarely enforced punishments for faithless Electors, including fines and misdemeanors." Our guess is that these would be enforced if enough faithless, Paul-supporting electors opt to bollix Romney's election, which they could only do if the final score on Election Night is razor-thin.

A GOODE PROBLEM IN VIRGINIA: Former Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode is running on the little-heralded Constitution Party ballot line for president, a matter that would otherwise be of little interest were it not for the fact that Virginia may end up being a critical swing state in the election. The problem this could potentially pose for Romney drew the attention of Ed Rogers on the Washington Post's "Insiders" blog:

Virgil is a misguided soul who has stumbled into Mitt Romney's path. The former congressman from Virginia's Fifth Congressional District isn't particularly well-known for anything except being a fist-shaker and habitual party-switcher. Anyway, whatever votes he gets will come right out of Romney's coalition. And if Virgil Goode secures between 3 and 4 percent in his old congressional district, he could get more than 1 percent of the vote statewide, enough to make the difference in this election.

Somebody called him "Romney's Ralph Nader," and that could be the case. If you're an ultraconservative Virginia voter, and you can't vote for Obama or a Mormon, then you might vote for Goode.

We'd quibble with Roger's contention that Goode "isn't particularly well-known for anything except being a fist-shaker and habitual party-switcher," because we are not, after all, "insiders" and thus, "know a thing or two about the world outside the Beltway." What Romney is up against, in terms of Goode's being on the ballot in Virginia, is not merely a conservative firebrand. He's actually sort of known for being a mensch. Elizabeth Dias got down to Goode's stomping grounds and took note of how well regarded he is:

His Old Dominion charm is a break from a national race that can often seem impersonal. Goode remembers where his former constituents’ kids go to school, when their siblings moved to a nearby county, and how their family businesses have fared for the past two or three generations. He opens all his own doors -- and all doors for his staffers -- and makes sure that women enter first. He attends Pleasant Hill Methodist Church (though he's Baptist) and spends his days on the trail at chicken festivals and gun shoots. To top it off, he narrowly missed giving a speech at a memorial dedication because he stopped en route to save a beagle who was hit by a truck -- he even paid a passerby to drive the dog to the vet before he continued on his way.

That's what Romney will have to contend with, if only in the Virginia 5th. (That last anecdote, actually, makes us think that Goode's congressional district is a place where Dogs Against Romney might want to set up shop.)

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: It's time once again for your Speculatroners to end the week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation, and relentless gas-huffing. The polls, we are told, are flush with a post-convention bounce for President Obama. Your Speculatroners, we can report, are still in the throes of a post-convention hangover. How nice it must be, to be bouncing!

How weird is this? Mitt Romney only leads by 5 points in Montana? That is bonkers. The seemingly rational explanation is that neither man is particularly popular, but my, that's truly unexpected.

Naturally, we assume it is an outlier. And it's more significant that Romney is continuing to make Wisconsin interesting. As the New York Times reported, "The [Obama] campaign's first television advertisements there are set to begin on Thursday, a sign that the state is more competitive than the Obama campaign had once expected. Mitt Romney's campaign started its advertisements in Wisconsin earlier this week. Outside groups on both sides have also been advertising in the state."

Still, we are powerless in the wake of such convention bounce optimism, with the NBC/Marist polls showing growth in Obama's support in several important swing states. So this week, it's good news for the incumbent.

specprojseptfourteen

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