The Romney campaign's plan for beating President Obama in November seemed simple enough: define Obama's presidency as a failure, avoid any specific plans and hope that either Obama makes a huge mistake or that voters conclude they must fire the President so they can try someone else to kick start the economy.
It was an extremely simple plan and it did keep Romney to within 5 percentage points of Obama in almost every swing state and most national polls.
But then Team Obama started spending big money.
They ran tens of millions of dollars worth of advertisements in every swing state from Virginia to Colorado defining Mitt Romney as an out of touch, heartless businessman who does not care about the middle class. It worked. Romney's unfavorable ratings went up through the month of July. While President Obama's approval ratings were not moving up, he was succeeding in disqualifying his opponent as a viable alternative to voters fed up with a stagnant economy.
Romney had to make a big choice, but it wasn't just a choice about who to pick for a running mate. Rather, it was a choice about what kind of campaign strategy he would pursue for the final 90 days of the race. On one hand, he could stay the course. He could pick a boring, safe, experienced political figure like Ohio Senator Rob Portman or former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and just keep doing what he has been doing since April. He could take the safe route and hope that Obama stumbled on the campaign trail or that Romney could sting the president with a memorable exchange during the debates. It was a safe strategy that basically made it Obama's race to win or lose so that Romney was ready to pounce late if a big mistake was made. It's like a sprinter who conserves energy and doesn't try to pass the leader until the final 50 meters of a 400 meter race.
The other choice was to abandon the safe campaign and make this a race about two starkly different choices. That is the race Team Obama has been hoping for all along. They believe if the election was a referendum on Obama, they would lose; but, if it were a choice between a liberal Obama and a conservative Romney, they would win big. Romney is giving the Obama campaign what they want but hopes to out-smart them by pivoting so quickly that the Obama campaign won't be able to catch up.
The Romney camp now believes that with Paul Ryan, they can articulate a complex, yet easy to understand economic and budgetary reform plan and define it as the "plan for prosperity." Team Romney does not believe the Obama campaign is set up to talk about complex policy points or defend the President's economic record.
During campaign events in Virginia on Saturday, Romney laid out a 5 point plan for restoring the economy. He said the 5 key issues are energy independence, education reform, robust international trade, reducing the national debt, and easing taxation and regulation on small businesses. It is a broad vision that touches on 5 inter-connected issues in one breathe. Romney's campaign does not believe Obama is prepared to come out with a similar plan of his own and this one throws down a challenge to the President to unveil one. If voters see Romney has a plan and the President doesn't, perhaps it will dramatically re-shape the race.
So why bother abandoning the safe campaign route that could still pay off in exchange for a risky all-out policy brawl? Maybe because team Romney has studied recent elections around the world.
When David Cameron became Prime Minister in the U.K., his Conservative Party did so after a campaign centered on conservative, free market policies. Cameron spent weeks tearing apart Labour Leader and then P.M. Gordon Brown to be sure; but, toward the end of each speech and during the televised debates, Cameron rolled out a big, bold austerity driven public policy platform. His party won a plurality in Parliament with 36.1% of the vote in a 3-way contest and was able to not only form a coalition government with the third party, but was then able to implement nearly all of their economic reforms.
Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper had a similar experience. He first became Prime Minister in 2006 as part of a shaky minority party and then again in 2008. But in the 2011 election, Harper took a sharper turn toward policy issues in the defense of his government and not only won re-election but did so with an absolute majority in Parliament, the first in 11 years. Not only did Harper defeat the Liberal Party in Canada, but he relegated them to 3rd Party status when they captured less than 19% of the vote. People punished the Liberals for not offering ideas.
Without going into too much detail, center-right governments have recently been elected or re-elected in Portugal (2011 - Coelho won with 39%), Finland (2011 - Katainen narrowly won with 20.4%), Ireland (2011 - Enda Kenny won with 36%), Spain (2011 - Rajoy won with 44.6%), New Zealand (2011 - Key re-elected with 47%) and Greece (2012 - Samaras with 30%). In almost every single case, the right-wing party detailed specific plans and offered a stark contrast against the other parties it was competing against.
Things internationally are not always rosy for Conservatives with a plan. France and Mexico have both had elections this year that swept out a right of center government and replaced it with a liberal regime. But those were parties in power, and U.S. Republicans are not defending existing governing policies in 2012.
If Romney's pick of Paul Ryan marks the start of a debate about political and economic philosophy in America, bring it on. Recent evidence from around the world and past U.S. elections leads me to believe that such a debate is hard for Democrats in power to win.
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