Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich thinks former Gov. Mitt Romney is not a true conservative. Romney compared Gingrich to the character of Lucy Ricardo in her iconic performance as an assembly-line worker in a candy factory (great episode; bizarre comparison) and says Gingrich is guilty of his own flip-flops on healthcare. Rep. Ron Paul has come under attack for old newsletters that contain racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic content. And all of the members of the GOP field decree President Obama is a hapless, barely-competent politician who knows nothing about the economy.
It's clear what the Republicans are against and what and whom they don't like. But while that approach may galvanize the base, it might not win an election.
Democrats in 2004 thought there was so much dislike of former President George W. Bush that their candidate would win almost by default. But Sen. John Kerry lost, in no small part because he didn't give voters a clear and optimistic vision of where he would take the country. True, a lot of people disliked Bush. But not enough of them really liked Kerry—at least not enough to make the extra push in a close election. The opposing party in any election often proclaims that a presidential contest is a referendum on the current occupant of the White House. Had that been true, Kerry would have beaten Bush, who had low approval ratings and was facing increasing voter unhappiness over the war in Iraq.
The current Republican field faces the same barrier in taking on Obama. The president is surely vulnerable, and the election—at least at this point—is shaping up as another close contest. But the eventual nominee is going to have to come up with a stronger argument than "Obama has failed, and I'm not him." Republicans may not like Obama's policies, but the president is nowhere near as polarizing as Gingrich (and is better liked, even if the president's professional approval ratings are not good). Paul claims a loyal cult following, but his appeal does not stretch far beyond that group of libertarians. And Romney faces similar problems that beleaguered previous losing candidates. Like 2008 GOP nominee Sen. John McCain, Romney has a problem with his conservative base. Unlike McCain, Romney is not a war hero and does not connect well with people in a town hall meeting. Like Kerry, Romney has a solid resume in government. Unlike Kerry, Romney does not have foreign policy experience. And so far, Romney is failing to capture the enthusiasm among his own party members to oust even an unpopular president.
The overall anti-incumbent mood could make the difference for Romney or any other GOP nominee. And if the economy worsens or stays at its current, sluggish state, that may be enough for voters to demand a change. But even in adversity, Americans are an optimistic, forward-looking lot. Criticizing the competition may get a candidate attention. But to get votes, at some point, they're going to have to present a positive message and vision.