Mitt Romney has promised to make a forceful argument against Newt Gingrich in order to rehabilitate his campaign, which has recently hit a South Carolina-sized pothole. Here are some thoughts on what Romney could do to revive his campaign.
Perhaps the most crucial thing that Romney can do is to unite the disparate aspects of his campaign into a focused, principled message. Romney is known as a devotee of arcane details, and that facility with information may prove useful in governing, but now might be the time to sell a more focused campaign theme. Romney's team has, I think, been moving in this direction, but it's been knocked off course a little by the Gingrich surge (especially by the tax returns issue, as even Romney advisor Stu Stevens admits).
Many sense that the sotto voce theme of Romney's campaign is his electability, but that empirical principle is not enough to win a primary, especially in a party with a base that enthusiastically replaced Mike Castle with Christine O'Donnell in Delaware in 2010. Romney's competence with complex administrative apparatuses is also a good selling point, but claims of competence immediately draw the eye to questions of principle: to what ends will this technocratic skill be put?
I've suggested before that Romney could argue persuasively on behalf of a pro-growth, pro-middle class conservatism. By fighting for a tighter labor market (through tackling trade and immigration issues), Romney could in turn encourage new growth for the middle and working classes, which have increasingly been left behind. It is possible for conservatives to be concerned about income inequality and stagnating social mobility and to make a conservative case for improving the opportunities for the poor and middle class.
Despite what the media (and some right-leaning pundits) may claim, "progressives" do not have a monopoly on those issues. Indeed, the kind of expansionist government that "progressives" often desire has only seen its power grow due to income inequality and economic stagnation. Moreover, the later Bush and Obama years have shown that those who control massive amounts of wealth can gain the most through an expansionist central government: they alone know how to manipulate the government system to make the most for themselves. There's a reason why GE paid less in corporate taxes (i.e., nothing) than the average business.
A strong case can be made for restoring economic vitality by cutting burdensome regulations, investing in infrastructure and human capital, aggressively protecting US economic interests abroad, putting the financial industry on sound footing, and incentivizing economically productive activities. And Romney could be just the man to make it. His experience in the corporate world demonstrates his utter intimacy with the tendencies of modern business---the good and the bad. His economic policies go beyond tax cuts; for Romney (unlike for some GOP candidates), every economic problem is not a nail waiting for a tax-cut hammer.
The idea would be to run on a platform of restoring economic hope. That would mean restoring economic growth and pushing for reforms that would help more of the American people benefit from the gains of growth; these two goals are complementary. With some of his speeches, Romney seems to be edging in this direction, but more emphasis could be placed on the hope of increasing opportunity. The real political topic at issue is not how much in taxes Romney has legally paid but how to reform the political-economic structure in order to give the opportunity to more Americans to make it to the higher tax brackets and to ensure that even those in lower tax brackets can have some kind of economic security.
It's probably not time for the Romney campaign to hit the panic button yet; if the media senses more blood in the water, a feeding frenzy could ensue. But now is the time to focus its argument and redirect the energies of the primary cycle.
In addition to that positive point, here are a few don'ts:
Don't go Newtclear: The auditions for the angriest anti-establishment Republican have come and gone, and Newt Gingrich seems to have won that part. Attempts to outflank Gingrich in nastiness toward Democrats/the media/Barack Obama are more likely to be taken as pandering than anything else. This doesn't mean that Romney can't hit Obama and his failures hard, but playing the politics of alienation is not a game Romney can or should try to win. Reagan was bigger than that, and it worked out for him.
Don't be knocked off message: There's going to be a real temptation for Romney to embrace the old version of the Ryan budget in order to distinguish himself from Gingrich, who dismissed it as "right-wing social engineering." The first Ryan proposal is extremely unpopular (and not exactly realistic in some of its assumptions), and Ryan himself has abandoned it. Democrats will have a hard time Mediscaring Romney (he is, after all, the man who expanded health-care coverage in Massachusetts), and Romney should not throw this advantage away to score a minor point, one that won't really help him anyways. For those concerned about Gingrich's stances on policy issues, his dismissal of Ryan's budget is one of the most minor points. Trying to pander on various faddish right-wing talking points (such as 9-9-9) is not going to win Romney the nomination. Instead, he needs to focus on building a consistent, conservative campaign theme---even if this theme sometimes runs afoul of the dogma of the moment.
Don't make attacks on Gingrich the centerpiece: Hitting Gingrich on issues of hypocrisy, his inconsistency on policy, his Washington insiderism, etc. can deliver some benefits. But Romney should be sure to use these attacks to pivot to a more affirmative case for his own campaign. A media cycle focusing on how badly Romney hurt Gingrich in a debate will be less helpful for the campaign than one focusing on Romney's proposals and campaign vision.