The biggest question in Washington these days is this: Will the American voter in 2012 look more like the voter of 2008 or 2010? Obama strategist David Axelrod recently tweeted criticism of a Gallup poll unfavorable to the president on exactly these grounds – that it incorrectly assumed an electorate like that of 2010 in 2012. Is it likely he will prove right? If so, what is to be done about it?
In 2008, as it nominated John McCain for president, the GOP was just beginning a four-year-long reassessment of itself. What did it stand for? Particularly on spending, deficits, and the size and scope of government, how could Republican-led government have put up the prior eight years’ record numbers, even creating a new entitlement? Was this the party of limited government?
Swing voters – the kind who cast their ballots for Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 – were having the same doubts. As the final stage of the 2008 campaign began, they were all but ready to move to Democrat Barack Obama.
Their views changed in the first year of the Obama presidency. The new president and his team totally misread their victory and branded their administration with one word: “trillion,” as in bailouts, stimulus programs, and record annual increases in national debt. The result was plummeting approval ratings for the president, the rise of the tea party movement and one of the biggest election-to-election shifts of voter support from one party to another on record.
In the weeks since Mitt Romney effectively secured the nomination, I have spoken with Republican and conservative activists around the nation about the kind of people the GOP must attract and energize to win this year and what the prospective nominee and party spokespeople should tell them. Here are thoughts drawn from those conversations:
Remember why the country turned against the GOP in 2006 and 2008 and the Democrats in 2010.
These elections were, in effect, a single event.
During George W. Bush’s first term, even as national security issues overshadowed fiscal ones, Republican and swing voters became increasingly alarmed at the return to deficit spending after the surpluses of the later Clinton years. The president’s failure to follow through on Social Security reform after his reelection confirmed to them that he and the GOP Congress were not serious about controlling Federal fiscal excesses. So between 2006 and 2008, voters moved the entire government into the hands of the Democrats.
Had it governed as so many remembered Clinton governing, the Obama Administration might have locked in Democratic Party control of Congress and the White House for the next generation. Instead, in 2010, swing voters turned back to the GOP.
Some like Mr. Axelrod doubt that the fires of 2010 still burn. But those embers began smoldering close to a decade ago. How likely is it that such long-lived flames will suddenly go out now?
Concern about the debt and deficits is not just about numbers.
Here is the key to GOP and swing voters’ alarm at the explosion of federal spending and federal debt. As much as dollars and cents, they are concerned about American institutions. The Constitution, the free economy, family, even religious liberty of late — the voters who determined the last three elections see the massive expansion of the federal government’s size and power as a threat to all of these.
Yes, the next four years will require a president of prodigious management skills, if we are to lower the vast river of government power and spending until it is back within its natural banks. It is fair to say that no candidate ever has matched Mitt Romney’s record as a manager and turnaround specialist.
But Romney and all GOP candidates must show they know the larger stakes and will go about their task with those stakes as their guide. For weeks, Rick Santorum ran even with Romney despite having a campaign that was never much more than himself and his driver. Like Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, Santorum made the link between institutions and the Obama administration’s excesses and failures. Romney should learn from his former rivals.
This will be a results-oriented election.
An Obama-style reprise of “hope and change, details to come” won’t sell this time.
Mr. Romney must answer, how will you reduce the expense and regulatory reach of government? How will you fix Medicare and Social Security? How will you repair our national defense even as you do all this?
Do you have the taste for the fight that will be required to see through the repeal of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and (on many lists) Sarbanes-Oxley?
In other words, how will you restore our system of limited government?
And how will all of this cutting fix the broken economy? The work of economist Robert Barro and others, showing that government spending carries a negative multiplier (for every job it creates, its stops the creation of even more), should help. But the case must be made and the course for the next four years clearly and firmly set.
It isn’t just about you.
Some commentators have told the Romney campaign that the candidate needs to be introduced to the American people. He should talk more about himself, they have advised. That is a standard-issue consultant-style recommendation. It has some merit, but it isn’t enough.
When a candidate talks about himself, he must use his own story to talk about the nation – what our country has been, what it can be. Some fear that Mr. Romney’s personal story is too much riches to riches, not really emblematic of the country as a whole. And if the story is just about him, they are to a large extent right.
But the story of him and his rags-to-riches father combined – which he has occasionally brought out – is inspiring. It shows the son learning from and carrying on from his hero father. It is in many ways the story of what all Americans at all economic levels want for their children. And speaking about his dad elicits from Mr. Romney a true passion.
Indiana governor Mitch Daniels said recently that Mr. Romney and the GOP need to “campaign to govern, not just to win,” good advice for any candidate seeking high office. It means being specific about the principles and programs that will mark your presidency, being clear about your understanding of the nation’s character and your aspirations for its future, and demonstrating that you have depth and determination equal to the formidable task ahead.
Voters are ready to follow a candidate who is determined that the next administration will be about renewing the vitality of our national economy, reestablishing the stability of our government’s finances, and restoring the vigor for our most fundamental institutions.