Perhaps the most enduring puzzle of this presidential-election campaign has been the prolonged deadlock between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the national polls. Both remain stuck below 50 percent in most surveys, and nothing that’s happened in recent weeks—not convention hoopla, fiery speeches, or whirlwind tours through battleground states-- seems to be registering enough with voters to change that dynamic.
As some analysts have pointed out, Obama isn’t moving much in the polls, if perhaps slightly edging up, because he has failed to lay out a clear second-term agenda that goes beyond what he’s already done, and because so much of his appeal to voters amounts to countering Republican ideas rather than offering up more of his own. In his recent convention speech, which got tepid reviews all around, the president’s most passionate lines came when he declared that he would “never” succumb to the GOP agenda.
But for the challenger, Romney, the present stasis is even more worrisome. The Republican candidate’s unfavorable ratings continue to be slightly higher than his favorable ones, indicating that he is unable to close the sale with the American people despite a continuing drizzle of bad economic news that, one would think, would be enough to sink any incumbent. Many, including me, have been writing that the main problem is Romney himself: He doesn’t reach people on a personal level; he’s still too much of a mystery, and so on.
All that may be true. But the deeper problem for Romney is that he simply has no big new ideas to offer, whether on the economy, health care, foreign policy, or the financial system. His prescription for the economy is, at best, short on detail. But more important, it amounts to the economic equivalent of Newt Gingrich’s “moon colony” proposal during the GOP primaries. The former House speaker was befuddled, and not a little annoyed, when people laughed at his pledge to put a “permanent base on the moon … by the end of my second term.” Why, he asked, weren’t people responding to “grandiose” ideas any longer, the way they did when Kennedy first pledged to put a man on the moon? Well, because when Kennedy talked about going to the moon it was new, Newt.
The “Romney plan” combining lower tax rates and unidentified tax-code reforms is also a relic from another era. It amounts to a rehash of decades’ worth of superannuated supply-side thinking, which has long since jumped the shark from quasi-economics into a conservative cult religion. Most mainstream economists agree that the 30-year experiment in real-world economics we’ve been conducting as a nation since the Reagan “revolution” has proven that “trickle-down” just doesn’t add up. As former President Clinton pointed out in a scintillating convention speech that provided a survey of the past three decades of political battles, deficits have gone up more in the Republican presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush than under Democrats (him, that is). And there was no great surge of job creation.
Romney speaks of repealing “Obamacare,” yet he offers nothing in return but a confusing mash of ideas that include some things about the Affordable Care Act that he now says he likes, but no alternative plan. He has yet to deliver on an alternative to financial reform, even though that was supposedly his forte as a businessman. He attacks Obama on foreign policy, especially Iran, but without specifying what he would do differently to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. Nor does he have an alternative plan for Afghanistan or Iraq. He sounds tougher on China, but beyond branding Beijing a currency manipulator, how would he handle the enormously complex set of challenges posed by China’s rising power and status as America’s No. 1 financier? We don’t know.
Successful challenges to incumbents – challenges to the status quo, that is – can achieve escape velocity only if they are fueled by new ideas. And, for now, there just don’t seem to be enough of those to lift Romney into that orbit.