f you had to pinpoint the exact moment when Mitt Romney’s strategy to make the election largely a referendum on President Barack Obama collapsed, about 10:56 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 5, would be as good a guess as any.
That’s when, roughly 20 minutes into his sprawling oration at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., former President Bill Clinton said that no president — not even the 42nd — could have done a better job fixing the economy than Obama, given the problems the incumbent inherited.
The riff was typically self-regarding. Yet it memorably — and for some voters, persuasively — stated the case for cutting the president slack for his economic stewardship in trying circumstances.
The Big Dog was pushing on something of an open door. Obama has failed, but for a majority of voters he hasn’t failed enough to make it self-evident that he should go. The Romney campaign spent its convention answering the question: Is it OK to fire Obama if he’s such a fine fellow? When the real question is: Can Romney do any better?
Indeed, the two conventions — so far, the pivot of the election — were encapsulated in their two signature performances. On one hand, there was Clint Eastwood’s rambling, improvised 10-minute routine saying that it’s OK to cashier Obama. On the other, there was Clinton’s (at times rambling and improvised) 50-minute speech detailing why Romney’s program is wrong for the country. Eastwood could have given his speech at amateur night at a comedy club; Clinton could have given his at a policy luncheon at the Brookings Institution.
There’s been nothing to match it for the Republicans, which is one reason that Romney is now tied with Obama on the economy in many recent polls. Election Day is nearly six weeks away, and there’s still a sense that the Romney campaign has not yet — although it is moving this way — fully begun to make its case on substance.
This doesn’t mean it is doomed. Abraham Lincoln said that Gen. George McClellan had a case of the slows. The media have a case of the overs. Any alleged Romney gaffe, any bad poll number is taken as yet more evidence that the election is “over.”
In prior elections, the media have been criticized for calling a race without waiting until the polls close in California; this time, the media want to call the race without waiting until October. The press won’t be truly satisfied until a white flag of surrender is hoisted over Romney’s Boston headquarters.
In the end, righting his campaign depends entirely on Romney himself. He is not a natural ideologue, nor — obviously — a natural backslapper. But he is a data-obsessed salesman. He should be pitching his program with all the zeal and airtight attention to detail of a presentation for a Bain Capital business deal.
It may be easier to make a future-oriented rather than backward-looking argument against the president. He has no second-term agenda to speak of, besides a tax increase and some more budget meetings with presumed House Speaker John Boehner. How did those meetings turn out last time?
At this point, almost every day, every hour that Romney isn’t spelling out the programmatic differences between him and the president — and how they will affect people — is lost time.
Romney wants to reform taxes to make the system more efficient and spur growth; the president wants to raise taxes in a weak economy. Romney has serious plans to reform entitlements; the president has the status quo, plus a price-control board for Medicare. Romney wants to unleash an American energy revolution; the president wants to continue to stand in its way. Romney has a consumer-oriented health-care reform; the president has “ObamaCare.”
Romney has to make an unrelenting case for his program, pitched particularly to the practical concerns of middle-class voters. He has to give the public compelling reasons to pick him in an election that will be a choice, not a referendum.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.