Judging from Mitt Romney's speech last night, his first as the sure-thing nominee of his party, the former Massachusetts governor is opting for a textbook, play-it-safe campaign against a vulnerable incumbent.
The overarching theme of the Romney campaign, we now know, will sound something like this:
Four years ago Barack Obama dazzled us in front of Greek columns with sweeping promises of hope and change. But after we came down to earth, after the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama?
Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more in your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Do you pay less at the pump?
If the answer were "yes" to those questions, then President Obama would be running for re-election based on his achievements…and rightly so. But because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions, distractions, and distortions. That kind of campaign may have worked at another place and in a different time. But not here and not now. It's still about the economy …and we're not stupid.
This is the simple message that won Bill Clinton the White House. Its converse is what allowed Ronald Reagan to stay there. As Jonathan Chait notes, "This is almost certainly the correct strategy for Romney."
The problem, as I see it, is that the "Are you better off?" thrust is rather easily parried. The economy overall is demonstrably, if not dramatically, better than it was in January 2009. Is it great, or even good? Of course not. Thus, Obama will no doubt attempt to blame President Bush for, as Chait puts it, the Romney campaign's "litany of economic suffering"—a tactic to which, recent polls indicate, a majority of voters will be sympathetic.
Once the waters are muddied in this way, what will be left of Romney's message? Essentially, an agenda that was crafted in the late 1970s and today sounds as stale as canned sitcom laughter.
There was an opening for Romney to run a campaign of real substance. As a start, he could have repudiated the status quo ante 2007. He could have said income tax cuts haven't redounded to the benefit of ordinary worker. He could have proposed simplifying the tax code (including lowering corporate rates) without cutting personal rates for the very rich. He could have conceded the futility of growth built on speculative asset bubbles, and then underscored how his economic plan will reform federal research and development programs, known as R&D, and spark badly-needed innovation in the energy sector.
He could, in short, have chosen to run a campaign that's a lot bolder than the play-it-safe textbook campaign he's actually going to run.
As of now, the self-styled turnaround artist doesn't sound any smarter or more insightful about the economy than Sen. Bob Dole did 15 years ago.