Waiting for the debates

The video volcano that has erupted all over Mitt Romney’s already rocky campaign is now the new narrative, the contrast Romney tells us he was reaching for all along — he stands for free-market principles that create economic opportunity, while President Obama is a redistributionist whose policies bloat government, breed dependency and cripple growth.

While Romney might manage to tweak his message more clearly in the days to come, new themes are difficult to launch seven weeks out from a general election when — as the Obama campaign has been preparing for assiduously — early voting is already well under way. In addition, no matter how hard Romney hews to his new attack, his words from the May 17 video — which will star in ads in every battleground media market — were not only cynical, negative and unpresidential, they weren’t even true.

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Influential conservatives, following the tape’s release, were the first to correct Romney. They noted that while GOP policies have created fewer taxpayers, many in the 47 percent Romney referred to as Obama supporters who don’t pay taxes and depend on government do actually pay taxes (not income taxes), collect Social Security they have contributed to their entire working lives or are veterans receiving government healthcare. They don’t see themselves as victims, as Romney said, and many of them vote Republican. Indeed, many of the reddest states in the land deliver the least revenue to the federal government each year. 

So a collective breath is now being held for Oct. 3, when Romney hopes to win his first debate. Barring the unforeseen, in the weeks in between, Republicans don’t expect much to change. Frustrated Republicans are complaining that Romney’s campaign of caution, which drained his convention of energy and momentum and has continued to contract his economic and fiscal message even as his pick of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for VP was intended to expand it, has cost him opportunities and robbed him of the ability to recover from stumbles — and now the revelation that he really can’t “worry” about nearly half the nation. The un-bold economic referendum campaign Romney is running has yet to provide a majority of voters with a credible, uplifting vision for just how Romney could cross the political divide to reduce the debt and create those 12 million new jobs he has promised, let alone to be a reasonable replacement for President Obama as commander in chief.

Most astounding is that through one poor jobs report after another, in the “worst recovery” the country has ever experienced, Romney has managed to erase his own advantage on who is best equipped to improve the struggling economy. Polls show as Romney has eroded this critical edge, optimism about the economy and Obama’s leadership has grown. Obama’s approval rating is now at 50 percent in several polls, and the wrong-track numbers are better than they have been in years. The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday found that the number of respondents who believe they are better off now than they were four years ago jumped by 7 percentage points since August. 

With no good news or tangible alterations to Obama’s policies, this shift is inexplicable, and devastating for Romney. And that was all before the tape. While the video has Romney singing a new song, it won’t be easy to hit the notes since debt, decline and dependency were never part of his message — hidden in website whitepapers, perhaps, but hardly a stump-speech staple. The truth is the voters who want Romney to talk about the threat of European-style government are already with him, and undecideds want to hear about jobs. If Romney can’t, in 40 days, learn to speak convincingly about job creation, he will lose.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.