Mitt Romney's ideas don't matter
The Washington Post, August 30, 2012
It's a little maddening to wonks like me, but Mitt Romney's successful, energetic acceptance speech affirmed once more that presidential elections have almost nothing to do with policy ideas. Instead, as his carefully crafted, market-tested, and superbly-delivered (for him) speech showed, they're about creating a kind of gestalt sensation of values and aspirations with which voters can feel emotionally attuned.
In this sense, American politics is very different from, say, politics in Britain—where parties and voters take policy platforms more seriously, because in a parliamentary system the winners actually get to implement their plans. In the U.S., where politics has long been more about personalities than policies (and gridlock almost certainly awaits the winner in our system of dispersed power), a different calculation for presidential aspirants applies.
Were there any actual policy ideas offered by Romney tonight to get us out of the nightmare he sees President Obama as having wrought? He has a "plan," he says, to create 12 million jobs. But that's just a back of the envelope calculation based on dubious assumptions done by his economic team to hit a talking point that sounds good to the press and the focus groups. (Democrats do the same thing, so this is meant as an observation, not a partisan remark.)
Beyond that, Romney trotted out his increasingly familiar five-point "plan." Explore energy; improve education; expand trade; cut the deficit; and cut taxes and regulations. This list only shows how little you need to offer at the presidential level to qualify as having a "plan." Basically he just tossed out the bullet points and a line underneath them. Nothing in his "plan" would produce many jobs anytime soon (as an aggressive infrastructure building program—like the one Obama proposed that congressional Republicans refused to act on—would, for example). Having looked closely at what Romney has put forward on schools, taxes and the budget, I know they wouldn't do anything like what he claims. Not even close.
The important political point, however, is that this assessment, by me or others, doesn't matter. They're just the quibbles of columnists who look at the fine print, little buzzing mosquitos to be swatted aside while the campaign focuses on the tens of millions of people who got to draw emotional conclusions Thursday night about Mitt's credibility, trustworthiness and competence.
What's more, from Romney's point of view (as I argued in my Post column Thursday morning), this strategic vagueness leaves him maximum flexibility on policy should he be elected. This is the goal of any shrewd politician, and if Mitt pulls it off, it will be a singular achievement.
Romney's campaign thus enters the home stretch operating on the same mega-calculation with which it began—that in time of economic anxiety and high unemployment, a man with Romney's background and accomplishments is a highly credible alternative. Of late, they've added a focus-group inspired reassurance to wavering voters that it's okay to feel good about having backed Obama last time and yet feel equally fine about firing him today.
We also saw an intangible Thursday night that should have Obama strategists worried. As I wrote back in the primaries, when you imagine Romney and Obama facing off in the debates, there will be something of the feel of "the CEO" versus "the professor." With 23 million people who want full-time work unable to find it, and Paul Ryan's indelible image of jobless college graduates living at home looking at "fading Obama posters" and wondering when they can get on with their lives, the capable-looking CEO may seem attractive.
Such anxieties in the Obama camp may be heightened now that it's clear from Romney's performance that the man is a clutch player. He tossed off with aplomb the zinger that made Obama seem grandiose with his talk of "halting the rise of the oceans" and "healing the planet." Plainspoken Mitt, by contrast, will just be out to help you and your family.
My favorite line was the quip about his deciding not to ask his church's pension fund to invest in Bain in the uncertain early days, lest Romney not only lose their money, but "go to hell." It was an appealingly risque line for the "father's knows best" candidate—and very funny, in my view. You got the sense Romney used that line often back in the day. It also let him make the point, which his campaign will hammer home in the weeks ahead, that Bain's investment acumen helped secure the retirement of many worthy groups, including teachers, union members and, yes, priests.
This race was always going to go down to the wire. We'll see next week how deftly Democrats can make their case (and their rebuttal). I wish the regressive, phony, and troubling nature of many of Romney's actual policy ideas mattered more. They may not. And that's depressing.