Leading conservatives are offering blunt advice to Mitt Romney: Quit ducking details, start engaging in a real and specific war of ideas with President Barack Obama -- or lose.
Here's just a sampling of the past 24 hours:
- Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful voice in conservative media with The Wall Street Journal and Fox News under his control, said on Twitter that "Romney must draw clear line: offer specific path to restore American dream...To win, Romney must open big tent to sympathetic families. Stop fearing far right, which has nowhere else to go."
- The Wall Street Journal editorial page, playing off Romney's confusing answer about what if any parts of "Obamacare" he would retain as president: "Mr. Romney's pre-existing political calculation seems to be that he can win the election without having to explain the economic moment or even his own policies. As this flap shows, such vagueness carries its own political risks."
- In an open letter to Romney posted on the Weekly Standard, a publication hard-wired into the Paul Ryan operation, Peter Hansen wrote: "The assertion that you are more competent than President Obama strikes many people as merely that -- an assertion. It would be supported by your speaking in more detail about a range of financial issues.
"It is still possible to convince voters that you will do a better job with the economy than President Obama has, but telling people you're better qualified isn't enough. To some extent, as writers are often told, you need to show it, not tell it."
- Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), told The New York Times: "It is always difficult to run against a sitting president, but he does need to be clearer about what his vision is and what he would do. People are ready to vote against Obama, but Romney has not yet sold the deal. Now is the time to do that."
- Conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham: "Mitt Romney cannot at this point be convincing himself that he's winning. I hope they're not. I hope the Romney campaign actually knows what's going on with these numbers. And I hope that the strategy that has been in place, which is basically raise a lot of money in the summer, but not hit back, but not offer a clear, substantive, three-point solution to this mess that we're in -- five-point solution -- lay it out for the public. I don't care if he has to go back to the PowerPoints that he used in the road shows when he was at Bain. That's what he's really good at."
- Two prominent GOP strategists who have worked for Romney in the past, Alex Castellanos and Mike Murphy, have thrown up their hands on Twitter with apparent frustration at the trajectory of the Republican's campaign. When Romney's team put out a memo Monday urging reporters not to make too much of Obama's post-convention poling numbers, Castellanos judged it "a bit weak. "romney can still win but few at bats left," Castellanos tweeted, "still think an Obama 2nd term = disaster. just haven't heard why Romney would be better. i remain hopeful."
- Weekly Standard editor William Kristol knocked Romney for running a "pre-Ryan sort of campaign," comparing the strategy to Michael Dukakis's competence-not-ideology 1988 theme. "Mike Dukakis lost," Kristol reminded Romney. "As the examples of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 suggest, successful challengers don't just jab lightly, parry punches, and circle the ring. They go for at least a few knockdowns. It's not enough to float like a butterfly. You have to sting like a bee. No sting, no victory."
- In addition to the broadside from the Journal editorial page, former George W. Bush speechwriter William McGurn penned a separate column lamenting "the silence of the Republican lamb" - that would be Romney - on the war in Afghanistan. Democrats have pilloried Romney for not mentioning Afghanistan in his GOP convention speech, and McGurn shakes his head at the absence of in-depth war policy from Romney's comments and campaign website. "Maybe that makes political sense, with unemployment stuck above 8% and the economy sputtering," McGurn writes, calling that a "disservice" to the country on several levels. "It is, first, a disservice to the stronger foreign policy Mr. Romney is alleged to represent. Does he really believe, for example, that the Israelis will be encouraged and the Iranians deterred by expressions of resolve from a political leader so reluctant to bring up a war Americans are actually fighting? Silence is also a disservice to those whom we ask to do our fighting."
- Former New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, said Tuesday on MSNBC: "As strongly as I support Governor Romney, we need to be better and sharpen our message more. We need to say something in simple terms, and one of the things I've been saying is take a position that a middle class family in Ohio sitting around the table can say, 'Yes, Governor Romney's going to do that and I agree with it.' He has an excellent economic plan, but it's 57 pages long, with so many points. We need to distill it down to a thing that's simple to understand and that connects to people. And I think when it happens, the polls are close and we're going to see that turn around."
- In a weekend column, conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg branded the 2012 race as "The Campaign of Wrong Ideas vs. No Ideas." Guess who the no-ideas candidate was. "After running to the right in the primaries and boldly picking Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney bizarrely seems to have retreated to an ideological and even intellectual crouch," Goldberg wrote. "Though he doesn't say it explicitly, the tone and tenor of Romney's convention speech suggested that Obama failed because didn't have the right resume, not because he has the wrong ideas ... Listening to the Romney speech, you'd have no idea he picked a principled, fearless, and brilliant conservative lightning rod as a running mate."
This is not a new concern: Before Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate, many of the same conservatives were lamenting the Romney strategy of showing very little leg when it comes to his policy plans, as a way to keep all eyes on Obama. The selection of Ryan, many of these conservatives assumed, meant Romney was prepared to scrap that plan and engage in an authentic, if high-risk, war of ideas. They assumed wrong.
Romney, according to people who have discussed the issue with him, did not pick Ryan because he suddenly changed his mind about the strategic risk of detailing his ideas. Instead, it was personal chemistry first and a belief that Ryan would be instrumental in a governing context second that ultimately sealed the deal. Still, that didn't keep conservatives from hoping otherwise -- and Romney and Ryan from sending mixed signals about their intentions to go all-in on policy debates, especially on restructuring Medicare. Initially, they promised a campaign of bold choices and substance. Since then, the campaign has very much settled into a pre-Ryan mind-set.
Why such reticence to go specific? Top campaign officials have explained it this way: In the modern political and media culture, with every day dominated by one side doing a better job than the other of pouncing on facts or, more often, on plausibly defensible distortions or lies, specificity is merely ammunition for the other guys.
Moreover, the officials believe voters are moved by big ideas -- a bad economy or impulse for change. The Romney theory of the case for winning rests on voters turning against Obama because of the economy and then ultimately warming to Romney because they see him as a better-than-even bet to improve it.
In this context, a full-throated engagement on the laurels of injecting private competition into the existing Medicare system or detailing the loopholes to be eliminated to finance broad-based tax reductions for the middle class are a distraction -- not a political asset.
It's not clear the pressure from the leading voices on the right will do anything to change this.
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