Romney’s surrogates are wrong …

... and they probably know it, too

Topics: Opening Shot,

Romney’s surrogates are wrong …

Occasionally, politicians say genuinely interesting and revelatory things when they appear on Sunday talk shows. Usually, though, they’re just talking without really saying anything, even when it sounds like they’re making news.

The comments that Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels, two big-name Republican governors, made yesterday definitely fall into the second category. To judge from the headlines, Walker and Daniels both offered a stern public warning to Mitt Romney, their party’s presumptive presidential nominee: If you’re only counting on people voting against Barack Obama, you’re going to be in trouble.

“I don’t think we win if it’s just about a referendum on Barack Obama,” Walker said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” while Daniels told “Fox News Sunday” that “[t]he American people will rightly, I think, demand to know something more than he’s not President Obama. He’s got to use this fall as an opportunity to build a consensus across, I hope, a broad spectrum of Americans to make the big changes we need. … He better have an affirmative, constructive message, and one of hope.”

File this under: standard-issue gobbledygook. Are Daniels and Walker actually convinced that Romney needs to make a comprehensive, policy-based case to have a chance? Sure, they might be. But they’re also saying exactly what any self-respecting politician would say in this spot. In politics, you’re not supposed to publicly admit to the cynical calculations at the heart of your side’s campaign strategy.

Make no mistake, though: The Romney strategy is all about convincing voters to throw Obama out while simultaneously selling Romney in the vaguest, broadest terms possible. The idea is to minimize Romney’s exposure in sensitive areas, from culture war politics to specific social safety net cuts, and to position him as a generic, acceptable vehicle for the frustrations of economically anxious swing voters.



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It’s impossible to watch Romney in action and conclude otherwise. In one breath, he’ll excoriate Obama for failing to put forth a jobs plan; in the next, he’ll blast Obama for blaming Republicans in Congress for … killing his jobs plan. His aim isn’t to win over Americans with bold ideas. It’s to equip them with rationalizations for turning on Obama – and most Republicans probably know this. They’re just not supposed to admit it.

That’s probably the best way to understand the comments from Daniels and Walker, and any other Republican who makes the same case. If a prominent Romney supporter were to say, “You know, we really don’t think we need to offer any ideas – we’re just going to drum up anger at Obama, and that should be enough,” it would set off a firestorm and give Democrats a dream talking point. But what Walker and Daniels said yesterday goes down easy with most voters, the same way that empty campaign promises to reach across the aisle and govern in a bipartisan fashion do. It’s just what the public, and the press, expects to hear.

But it doesn’t mean Romney actually has to follow through with a serious, ideas-based fall campaign. There would be an obvious danger in doing so; the more specific Romney gets, the more ammunition he gives his opponents – and the harder it becomes for him to function as the generic Obama alternative he wants to be. There’s probably much less risk in trying to duck the tough issues and playing dumb when Democrats accuse him of offering no real agenda. The illusion of substance isn’t hard to create, as long as you don’t actually admit what you’re trying to do.

This doesn’t mean Romney’s strategy is sure to work. At its core, it depends on the economy not improving between now and November. It also depends on true believers in his party giving him the latitude he needs to avoid third-rail issues during the campaign. And it’s possible that the charge he has nothing serious to offer could end up hurting Romney with a small slice of swing voters; in a very close election, this could be decisive.

But in the face of the most recent jobs reports, there’s a lot to be said for Romney’s strategy. And nothing that Walker or Daniels said on Sunday is inconsistent with it.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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