As the Democratic National Convention went into high gear, so did the bad news about the economy. Consumer confidence sank to its lowest level in nine months, gas prices hit a new high, the manufacturing sector shrank for the third month in a row, and the national debt reached $16 trillion. The most recent unemployment numbers confirmed what we already knew: that the economy remains stalled, despite all of President Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric.
Meanwhile, in his acceptance address at the Republican convention, Mitt Romney promised to create 12 million new jobs as president. In the all-too-brief section of his speech in which he talked policy, Romney mentioned his five-step "Plan for a Stronger Middle Class." In a little more than a sentence about each, Romney ticked through his steps: establishing energy independence, reforming education through school choice, expanding trade agreements, cutting the deficit and balancing the budget, and reducing taxes and regulations on small businesses while also repealing and replacing Obamacare. If you blinked, you missed it. The Romney campaign made a strategic decision to close the "likability" gap with Obama by having him speak more about his life and family than his vision for the future of the country. The convention featured very effective biographical videos and testimonials from people whose lives have been changed for the better by Romney, but middle-class voters were left wondering how the candidate's five steps will improve their lives, too.
If you ask me, a strong growth-and-prosperity agenda for the middle class is more important than likability ratings. Here's how the GOP can still "go bold" in the next eight weeks and win over middle-class voters.
Romney is calling for a 20 percent cut in marginal tax rates across the board. Why not make an even bigger play for the middle class by calling for a flat tax? If Romney promised an optional 10 percent rate for lower-income taxpayers and a 25 percent rate for higher-income earners while eliminating all itemized deductions, as running mate Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan has proposed in the past, middle-class taxpayers would respond in droves. And just as the 40-plus nations who have switched to a flat tax since the 1990s have, we'd see increased government revenues and skyrocketing economic growth—which means more jobs.
Many middle-class voters now understand the "fiscal cliff" we're facing in January, but no one's heard a word from the president about what he's going to do about it. Romney should have a plan to hit the ground running. He should ask Oklahoma Republican and former "Gang of Six" member Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican vice presidential short-lister and former debt supercommittee member Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, and Ryan, who served on the Simpson-Bowles commission, to be his point men on negotiating a "grand bargain" with Congress that includes reforming the tax code, reining in entitlements, and slowing the rate of federal spending in order to avert disaster, such as massive tax hikes for middle-class families in January. Economists on all sides say failure to avert the fiscal cliff will spell another recession, and Romney needs to be the one candidate who is willing to do something about it.
Ryan voted against the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission for reducing the debt because it left federal healthcare spending, a big driver of the deficit, off the table. With healthcare costs continuing to rise under the president's Affordable Care Act, Ryan needs to explain the reasons for his vote when he slams the president for not supporting Simpson-Bowles. But more importantly, Ryan needs to lay out what he and Romney will do to reduce healthcare costs, as he has in his proposed budgets. It's one thing to say you'll repeal and replace Obamacare; it's another to say what you'll replace it with and how your proposal will reduce costs for both individuals and businesses.
Middle-class voters know that the problem with American healthcare isn't quality, it's cost. For small businesses, rising premiums are creating a tremendous amount of uncertainty. Republicans could address that doubt by spelling out, in plain English, exactly how they'll fix the problem, something the Democrats have not been able to do with middle-class voters.
Finally, Romney served as head of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics without pay, which sent a strong message of personal sacrifice in a time of crisis. He did the same thing as governor of Massachusetts. Doing it again as president, and getting a few high-profile, highly successful business leaders to serve as "dollar-a-year men" alongside him, would send a great signal to worried middle-class voters. Romney should consider approaching some of the members of the president's abandoned Jobs Council—AOL cofounder Steve Case, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, or Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, for example. All of the council's members are hardworking, public-spirited, and worried about the economy; some have not endorsed Obama and just might sign up for a Romney cabinet position. If they agreed to it now, that would be even better.
Similarly, Romney should consider recruiting a few conservative, pro-business Democrats, like former Indiana senator Evan Bayh or North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler to join his team. In an early bipartisan move, Obama named a few Republicans to his cabinet—former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood come to mind—and Romney might win over Reagan Democrats if he reached across the aisle as well. These days in Washington, that would really be going bold.