There was a time when Mitt Romney had something approaching a semblance of an affirmative case for his election. The affirmative argument, in a nutshell, held that Romney has a legitimate presidential resume. Why? Because he has been a highly competent and successful manager throughout his life, as CEO of a successful private company, as head of the Salt Lake City Olympics committee and as a moderate and responsible steward of government during his time at the helm in Massachusetts. But the Romney campaign has largely abandoned that argument. Because of the extremism of the contemporary GOP, Romney has had to repudiate his most impressive accomplishments as governor. His Bain record is now a clear liability. And managing a Winter Olympics is not, by itself, a meaningful credential for running a country.
This has left Romney with a campaign strategy built on three prongs: Cheat - via voter suppression laws that seek to disenfranchise large numbers of voters unlikely to pull the lever for the GOP nominee, especially African Americans, recently naturalized Latino immigrants, the elderly poor and college students. Pray - that the weak economic recovery will be enough to bring down the President. Lie - about pretty much everything, including the claim that Obama has gutted the welfare work requirements, serial dishonesty about Medicare, the "you didn't build that" nonsense, Obama's alleged "apology tour" and so on.
A quick review of the current state of play of each of these prongs:
1) Cheat, i.e. voter suppression efforts. Voter suppression is not specific to the Romney campaign. It is a GOP-wide endeavor, pursued with increasing fervor since the 2010 midterm elections in order to reduce the eligible electorate in the face of demographic changes that will increasingly undermine GOP electoral prospects. Some officials have been quite forthright about the intent of these laws, including Pennsylvania's Republican House majority leader Mike Turzai, who said earlier this year "voter ID is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." As the political reporter Elizabeth Drew has put it, "the Republicans' plan is that if they can't buy the 2012 election they will steal it." As odious and despicable as such efforts are, the voting expert Rick Hasen argues that these laws will not affect quite the number of people critics fear they will, and some recent court challenges may also mitigate their adverse consequences.
2) Pray - for a bad economy. Conservative commentator Byron York has called the Romney campaign "faith-based" in this context. But it appears these prayers are going unanswered. Contrary to some popular wisdom, the standard political science forecasting models - taking into account such things as recent macroeconomic performance - predict precisely the kind of close election we appear to be headed for. In other words, though Republicans and some mainstream commentators have assumed that the economy is so bad as to make the sitting President's re-election a long shot, the data in the models don't bear that out. Interestingly, a recent poll asked respondents whether they were better off today than four years ago. While a majority said no, a follow-up question asked whether they were better off because Obama was President than they would have been otherwise. By a 48-41 margin, the answer was yes. This finding is consistent with polls that have repeatedly shown a majority of Americans still blame Bush more than Obama for the economic woes of the past four years. Combined, these judgments may explain why the weak economic news is not translating into a Romney lead. Conservative guru Bill Kristol said on FOX news yesterday that if the election is about the past four years and the economy in particular, Romney will lose.
3) Lie - this is really the heart of the Romney campaign. Distortion and deceit have been central to Romney's efforts. In that regard, he's found an able lieutenant in Paul Ryan, who appears to have no compunction about spewing forth falsehoods, including repeated attacks on the President for positions that Ryan himself has taken in the very recent past (e.g. supporting cuts to Pentagon spending and the Medicare spending reductions in Obamacare). And not content to lie only about facts or policy, Romney/Ryan are also lying about - or grossly misrepresenting - the President's words. "You didn't build that" is Exhibit A. More recently, Romney's camp has tried to deflect attention from his 47% comments by making hay with some Obama remarks from 1998. At the time, State Senator Obama said he favored "redistribution." The fuller quote (naturally edited by the GOP to shear it of all relevant context), reads "I believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure everybody's got a shot." Not exactly Communist Manifesto stuff. And if you asked ordinary Americans whether they believed that there should be some redistribution to make sure "everybody's got a shot," the vast majority of Americans would say yes. That hasn't stopped Romney surrogates from insisting that Obama avowed support for socialist revolution.
Romney is a weak candidate who connects poorly with people. The economy, while still objectively crappy for many millions of Americans, is not helping him as much as he'd hoped, partly because he simply refuses to offer any concrete plan for what he would do to improve it, other than to insist that more tax cuts for the rich and less regulation will do the trick. And voter suppression, while a real concern and an unconscionable tactic, is unlikely in and of itself to overcome the margins Obama appears to be compiling in the key battleground states. In the face of what is turning out to be a narrowing path to victory, Team Romney's got one major arrow left in its quiver - make stuff up. It ain't pretty, but it appears to be the best they can do.