For partisans, election years are a time to experience the highs and lows of manic depression. Your candidate and his followers can be lifted on the wings of angels to the mountaintop, only to be plunged straight into the valley of despair, and vice versa, several times over before the contest mercifully ends.
Consider this month for President Barack Obama and his supporters, who have wallowed in the darkness of the valley for a month. The government announced in June that job growth had stalled earlier this year in an economy as stale as old beer, expanding at a tepid 1.9 percent. At that rate, it might take centuries to get back to full employment.
Then came the Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" scandal, along with what may be the seminal gaffe of the election when President Obama declared that the "private sector is doing fine."
In the midst of such a month, the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had a swing in his step, an extra bit of joy in his daily pummeling of the president. A veteran of many campaigns once told me, "You can always tell who is going to win a race—it's the campaign that is having the most fun."
Mitt Romney was clearly having fun, while Barack Obama and his people seemed to be going through the motions on a hard slog to November.
Now, it's the turn of the Obama campaign to have some fun. Not only did Chief Justice John Roberts make the president's day by siding with the liberal majority, the president's Bain Capital attacks on Romney appear to be gaining traction. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this week shows the president leading in a dozen swing states from New Hampshire to New Mexico by an average of 8 points. In those states, Romney's "unfavorable" ratings have risen from 36 percent to 41 percent, while his favorable ratings have dropped from 36 percent to 30 percent.
So what to make of all this? It is easy to get swept up in the story of the moment. From the vantage point of the mood stabilized, however, the essentials of the race remain the same: It will be a tough climb for Romney to get to an electoral victory. But it is doable.
Keep in mind that up until now, Republicans have paid the price for being a cacophony of committees. A party out of power is always a hydra-headed monster at an immediate disadvantage before the singular leadership of a sitting president. Given that institutional disadvantage, it didn't help that Republicans failed to make a high-profile backing of a credible healthcare alternative to expand coverage and contain costs. It didn't help either that much of the energy of the Tea Party has been dissipated on arcane, losing flights like trying to defund the Export-Import Bank.
Now the Republicans have a leader: Mitt Romney. He offers to do politically what cannot be done judicially, which is to end the threat Obamacare taxes pose to job creation. Beyond that, Mitt Romney needs to stay on message—his one message, which is the economy. His campaign will rise or fall on his ability to keep Americans focused on that one central issue.
The rest of the Republican Party must go further on healthcare. This means getting past reflexive negativity and partisan fist-waving. A vote alone to repeal Obamacare will not win voters or appeal to independents. Why? A kind of issue exhaustion has set in on criticism of Obamacare.
What is needed now is for Republicans to make a vivid contrast. Congressional Republicans should spell out the "replace" part that follows "repeal" to draw on the well-crafted ideas on healthcare coming out of libertarian and conservative think tanks. From Cato to the Heritage Foundation to the Pacific Research Institute, scholars have put forward solid plans to use the power of competition to extend the reach of healthcare while cutting that sector's ruinous medical inflation that threatens to kill jobs.
Republicans should unite behind one such plan—one that contrasts its positive differences in costs and its impact on jobs and economy—and run on it.
That would be a winning message. If Romney wins in 2012, he will have a mandate to move on the GOP plan. If he does not, Republicans will have an effective response in 2014 when Americans feel the pinch as Obamacare goes into action.
In the meantime, whichever side you are on, get ready for more highs and lows of a close, volatile campaign.
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