Political consultants are pugilists, masters in the dark art of negativity. Which is why it’s surprising to hear Democrats such as Steve McMahon and Republicans like Rich Galen urging their presidential candidates to be more, well, positive.
Specifically, these and other consultants not working directly for Mitt Romney or President Obama want their candidates to give voters a clear agenda and positive outlook. Negativity has a place, the mudslingers say, but both Romney and Obama woefully lack what President George H. W. Bush called “the vision thing.”
“People need to know where Mitt Romney comes from—what trips his wires,” said Mark McKinnon, who helped elect and reelect President George W. Bush. “They want context. They want to know who he is.”
“They’ve heard the dark side,” McKinnon said of Romney’s attacks on Obama, “now they need to see the light.”
In the Democratic camp, even brass-knuckle consultants such as Chris Kofinis worry that Obama has “not done enough to sell our agenda and vision.” If that doesn’t change, Kofinis said, “we are going into a dangerous fall” season.
Romney hopes to nail the “vision thing” at the Republican National Convention this week. Advisers say it’s his first and best chance to present Americans with a richer and more personal portrait—his Mormonism, his wife’s health battles, his private-sector record, and his plans as president.
Yes, the convention will draw contrasts with Obama, the advisers said, but Romney doesn’t want the negative meme to dominate his convention—as it does his campaign.
Obama accepts renomination next week in North Carolina and, like Romney, will use the made-for-TV event to present an uplifting vision for the country.
But don’t expect it to last. Obama shows no sign of easing up on negativity. Romney’s team, interviewed in Tampa on the eve of his convention, said that its main task in the fall is to make the election a referendum on Obama.
“Everything is presented now as a contrast,” said Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top strategist. “It’s a choice. This is a referendum about what has happened since President Obama took office, just like every other incumbent president.”
New policies? Not going to happen: “We’re hoping people will look at the policies we have already put out there,” Stevens said.
This is why the attack dogs are nervous Nellies.
“America is waiting for one of these guys to offer a positive and aspirational vision of the future,” McMahon said. “I’m one of the Democrats longing to see the fall bring some positive and aspirational messages.”
He credited Obama’s team with successfully defining Romney this summer as an out-of-touch, wealthy businessman. Democratic attacks also hurt the reputation of the Republican Party, which will benefit Obama. But now it’s time to pivot, McMahon said.
“For the Obama campaign, it’s important to strike the right balance between defining Mitt Romney and presenting a positive, aspirational message,” he said. “I hope they’ve found that balance.”
Republican strategist Galen, no stranger to the partisan zinger, said he’d like to see Romney take advantage of his post-convention financial advantage to better define himself. “He should turn on the spigot and go positive on him,” Galen said.
“All the Obama guys can do is try to make Romney an unacceptable alternative, so if you’re Romney you say, ‘OK, I’m willing to make this campaign about whether I’m an acceptable alternative. I can win that battle.’ ”
Weighing in Romney’s advantage is the fact that voters know just about all there is to know about Obama—both good and bad. The convention allows Romney to paint his own blank slate with pretty hues. “Romney,” Galen said, “has the greatest growth potential.”
Privately, Romney associates say that the former Massachusetts governor is more likely to serve up biography than policy—at the convention and throughout the campaign. Romney has offered sweeping ideas but few details on policy, even with the vice presidential nomination of Rep. Paul Ryan, a budget-and-policy geek.
The reason is strategic: Romney wants to make the election about Obama and the weak economy rather than the details of his own policies. Obama, meanwhile, needs to disqualify Romney in the minds of voters because most Americans are upset about the direction of the country and the state of the economy.
And so, the negativity continues. Positive visions, be damned. Even if it makes attack dogs whimper.