Last March, I argued that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), facing major opposition to his wide-reaching budgetary changes, was losing ground because he focused on number-crunching rather than presenting a vision. With nine months to go until Election Day, the entire Republican Party risks falling prey to the same dynamic. The GOP could lose a winnable presidential race and fail to gain control of the Senate because of a timid message: “The other guys are worse than us.”
The modus operandi of Republican strategists has been to depend on a stagnant economy and lay the blame on President Obama and the Democrats in Congress. Now, with a January jobs report suggesting signs of life in the labor market, that strategy sorely needs rebooting. A prevent defense rarely works in football, and it hardly ever works in politics.
The latest national polling shows clear signs that voters perceive improvement. This week, Obama’s approval rating hit 50 percent for the first time since May 2011 (after the killing of Osama bin Laden) in a newly released ABC News/Washington Post survey. A bare majority, 53 percent, disapprove of his handling of the economy, down a significant 9 points from September. When asked whether Obama or GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney would do better handling the economy and creating jobs—the two major vulnerabilities for the president—Romney only holds a 2- and 3-point advantage. Red flags abound.
Instead of leveraging their ideological advantage with a center-right electorate, Republicans are running in place. Polls show that a message of growth trumps one of fairness, but Republicans have focused their criticisms of the president on his stewardship of the economy, not his ideas. Despite the health care law’s unpopularity, they hardly bring it up anymore. It took a week for the Romney campaign to go after Obama for an executive branch decision prohibiting charities and hospitals from opting out of the law’s contraception-coverage requirement—a litmus issue for many religious voters, especially Catholics.
Behind the scenes, Romney’s top advisers are engaged in a vigorous debate over the most effective message against Obama. On one side are strategists who argue that he needs to win the employment discussion, emphasizing that he added jobs to the economy while at Bain Capital and as governor of Massachusetts. They worry that, under close scrutiny, Romney risks losing that argument—and with it, his rationale for winning the presidency: that he is better equipped to handle the economy.
Other strategists believe that focusing on Romney’s business record is backward-looking, and that the most important argument is over two contrasting visions for the U.S. economy. With his business background, Romney is well-equipped to talk about the benefits of the free market and visions of growth over increased government spending.
The idea/ideological wing of the Republican Party is right on the politics. For all the criticism Obama has gotten from the right over his fairness message, asking the wealthy to pay more in taxes to benefit the middle class is at least a compelling argument. He’s using the bully pulpit to show leadership on the central issues on Americans’ minds. This presidential election features two very different visions of the country’s future, and voters expect to hear how conservative policies can improve the economy. They need what President George H.W. Bush famously called “that vision thing.”
The timidity is also reflective in the Senate landscape, which looked like a lost cause for Democrats just a month ago. Now, the expectations are that control of the Senate will go down to the wire, with Republicans looking more likely to gain three or four seats rather than leveraging their clear structural advantage for a definitive GOP victory. Republicans are favored in conservative-friendly states such as North Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, and Montana. But GOP candidates face stiff challenges in unseating incumbents in the battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio, for instance, and have their hands full in open-seat Virginia and Wisconsin races.
The party recruited a talented crop of candidates. Former Sen. George Allen in the Old Dominion, former Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico, former Rep. Pete Hoekstra in Michigan, and former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle have strong governing resumes, are proven campaigners, and can raise significant amounts of money. But that “former” label raises red flags. Instead of infusing new blood into the Senate by recruiting promising up-and-comers in the mold of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Republicans are recycling their best and brightest from the 1990s.
Either way, it paints a picture that’s much more muddled than it was just a couple months ago. There’s now a plausible path to a second term for Obama and to continued Democratic control of the Senate. Until Republicans draw sharper contrasts with the opposition and start identifying their new leaders of tomorrow, the status quo may well prevail in November.
This article appears in the Feb. 8, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.