Mitt Romney's gigantic misstep about the 47 percent of Americans he depicts as freeloaders has turned a grumble of discontent into an uproar. On the heels of Obama's mini-surge in the polls, pundits and politicians, especially right-wingers, went apoplectic. Their ultimate conclusion as expressed by Laura Ingram, "If you can't beat Obama with this record, then shut down the party."
There are three Republican camps peddling explanations of why Romney hasn't made any real headway over the course of the four months since he sewed up the nomination.
First are the "Mistakes Have Dogged The Campaign" explainers, who as of yesterday are the dominant voice. They point to things as varied as the Todd Akin "legitimate rape" brouhaha, the Clint Eastwood empty chair speech, and the EU/Jerusalem verbal gaffes. This culminated in the strange decision to jump into the middle of the tragic killing of an American ambassador provoking Reaganite Peggy Noonan to opine, "I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors." While the list of missteps is truly impressive, these kind of things do not generally cause poll numbers to change, and others have shrugged them off in ways Romney has not.
Next are the "He Has To Define His Agenda" folks. As former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said, "He does need to be clearer about what his vision is and what he would do," he "needs to say clearly, 'You elect me, this is what you're going to get." That's just not true. Romney has been completely clear about what he wants to do, especially since Paul Ryan joined the ticket. He will cut Federal spending, oppose any tax increase, reconstruct Medicare and Medicaid, repeal Obamacare, restrict abortion and contraception, aggressively oppose Russia, China and Muslims. What's not clear to Trent Lott?
There are a few "You're Not Angry Enough" Republicans who really do think that abusing Obama will be enough. America's Firer-In-Chief Donald Trump thinks he can fire Obama with a combination of birther weirdness and anger. "The one thing I have to tell the Republicans, they've got to get tougher." There's not much here. That kind of stuff was a leitmotif in Tampa, with delegates saying things about Obama like, "He doesn't really love America." The result was a flat, negative convention that gave Romney no "bounce." Repeating that mistake will not do much with swing and undecided voters, and in fairness to Romney that's never been his style.
So what's really going on? There's one simple explanation that the organized right can't bear to consider: Bad Ideas. Romney's problem isn't that he's been vague or unspecific or made mistakes, it's that he's been clear and the American people don't like what they've heard. He's for huge domestic spending cuts, against tax increases for the rich, against abortion and contraception, against legalizing the immigration status of undocumented people, for toughness (or belligerence) in foreign policy, against cuts in military spending, for deregulation of Wall Street, and more. The primary campaign forced Romney to adopt economic and social positions that he had opposed, and turned him into just another Tea Party, anti-government, austerity social and economic reactionary. A majority of the American people understand and disagree on almost every one of these issues.
What the right is arguing is that the American people are not smart enough to adopt their program. Obama, for all his mistakes, and for all the bad economic numbers, is much more n tune with the American people than the Republican right and their reluctant standard-bearer Mitt Romney. If Obama had erred it was in failing to embrace the progressive agenda that emerged from Charlotte. While many Americans disagree with all or part of that agenda, it's closer to the heart and soul of the American experience than the pinched, money-first Republican vision. And it's more likely to work in the interest of most Americans.
Bad ideas. It's such an heretical thought for the right that it's simply not discussed. Anger, specificity, mistakes are all easier explanations than facing the consequences of bad ideas. Who would have thought that the campaigns had actually succeeded in provoking American voters into hard thought and a real choice? The campaign is and will remain close. The electorate is divided. There are important ideas underlying some of the Republican agenda. But, for now, America is rejecting that agenda not because it hasn't been explained, but because it has.