As Mitt Romney drifts, Speaker Boehner stays focused on economic message

Mitt Romney could learn a lot from John Boehner about staying on message.

Unlike the Speaker, Romney has struggled to define his brand and convey a singular focus on the economy and jobs. Unless that changes, Republicans fear that the White House will stay in Democratic hands for four more years.

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While the Romney campaign at times has become distracted by side issues, Boehner (R-Ohio) has relentlessly stuck to an economic message for most of the GOP’s 16 months in the House majority.

Republican legislators and strategists say that such single-mindedness is the key to taking back the White House, adding that Romney should take a page from the House Speaker’s playbook.

The dichotomy between the messaging philosophies of the two most important men in the Republican Party was clearly on display after President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage last week.

Boehner made little secret that he had no interest in discussing same-sex marriage during his briefing  with reporters on Capitol Hill, shying away from the topic until directly asked about it.

After briefly re-stating his support for traditional marriage, he returned to an economic message, hammering his traditional refrain — “Where are the jobs?”

“The president can talk about it all he wants,” Boehner said at one point. “I’m going to stay focused on what the American people want us to stay focused on, and that’s jobs.”

While Boehner handled the issue smoothly, Romney appeared uncomfortable.

When asked about the president's announcement, Romney repeatedly cited his consistency on the issue compared with Obama. Romney went on to indicate that he believed states should be able to determine what rights gay couples should have, including on matters like adoption and hospital visitation.

Instead of quickly pivoting back to the economy like Boehner did, Romney breathed new life into the issue, highlighting one of his own perceived weaknesses: flip-flopping.

That stumble in many ways mirrored Romney's handling of the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death last month. Rather than conceding a day or two of favorable press to the president, Romney attacked the president for "spiking the football" and contended "even Jimmy Carter" would have made the same call.

That strategy helped feed a week-long focus on the bin Laden raid that dominated political headlines. Romney subsequently said the president deserved credit for approving the operation. 

Republicans worry that continuing to engage on topics other than the economy amounts to wasted opportunities. 

"This campaign is going to come down to how many days were spent on doing hand-to-hand combat on issues that are not related to the economy," GOP strategist Steve Lombardo said. "If at the end you add them up and it's more days than you spend talking about the economy, then you lose. If this election is a referendum on the president's performance on jobs, Romney has a chance. If it's on anything else, then the president is likely to be reelected."

Instead, strategists and lawmakers believe Romney needs to develop a brand as an economic Mr. Fix-It singularly focused on the nation's economic health — much as Boehner has done in the House.

"The biggest reason why Boehner is a good focal point for Romney is that Team Obama has a Ph.D. in message deception," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said. "Boehner is someone who does not succumb to the temptation to go down those rabbit holes, even as people in his own party are causing trouble, and he doesn't lose his cool. He has a brand, and even people who don't know a lot about John Boehner know House Republicans are bent on the fiscal health of the country."

Staying on message is more difficult on a presidential campaign.

But in Congress, there's been no shortage of potential distractions for House Republicans since taking back control in 2010. The House GOP has occasionally deviated from its self-proclaimed “laser-like” focus on the economy and waded into fights over social issues, often at the behest of outside groups or the conference’s more conservative members.

A dispute over federal funding for Planned Parenthood threatened a government shutdown in 2011, and Boehner himself briefly seized on the administration’s initial rule requiring churches to provide contraception coverage. The Speaker also hired outside counsel to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court after the Obama administration dropped its support for the law.

Boehner’s handling of the payroll tax extension in December was widely panned, but he acknowledged as much when he said opposing the Senate-passed bill ‘may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world.’”

Republican House members have praised Boehner for sticking to the party’s message.

“He’s been on the economic message for four years now,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. “And he’s done it by pushing legislation that he talks about — ‘Where are the jobs?’ is a line that probably every American has heard out of John Boehner’s mouth one way or another.”

Boehner and his staff have also tightened access to the Speaker in ways that help keep him from veering off-message. He generally gives one or two short press conferences a week when the House is in session, and in a change since he took the gavel, Boehner has steadfastly refused to take questions from reporters as he walks the halls of the Capitol.

The result has been that while Boehner has confronted many challenges as Speaker, he has made relatively few gaffes.

As the presumptive Republican nominee, Romney does not have it as easy. While his press conferences are rare, his campaign is expected to weigh in on any and every issue garnering national headlines.

“I’ve never been in the bubble he’s having to live in,” said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), chairman of the House GOP leadership team. “I would just say you have to be very disciplined and it’s not that hard, because you just keep in your mind what matters to the voters, and that is the economy and jobs.”

But part of running for president is presenting a defined, three-dimensional identity and vision to the American people. For Romney, part of that struggle will be figuring out how to make the lagging economy newsworthy, and parlay that into connections with voters.

He must also better focus his attention, and, if necessary, muscle the conversation back to more favorable ground, according to GOP operatives. That tactic has been highly successful for Boehner, who remains a popular figure in his home state of Ohio, a crucial battleground in November.

"Everybody knows one thing about John Boehner, he's the Speaker of the House, and his quest is to be more fiscally conservative," O'Connell said. "He may run into some hurdles, like the payroll tax cut, but Boehner knows his job is to work to improve the economy and reduce the deficit, and Romney can look to that."

Walden warned that the president would continue to create “bright shiny objects to divert attention from the real issues that matter most to Americans.”