Apparently, the Election is a Choice, Not a Referendum, After All!

This is a pretty rich, if not entirely unpredictable, development, per the New York Times’ Michael Barbaro:

Republicans have a message for Mitt Romney: it’s time to go positive.

Prominent party leaders, unsettled by the frequently combative tone of Mr. Romney’s presidential campaign, are pressing the presumptive Republican nominee to leaven his harsh criticism of President Obama with an optimistic conservative vision that can inspire the party faithful, appeal to swing voters and set out a governing agenda should he win in November.

Their worry: that the angry tenor of the Republican primary season could carry over into the general election, leaving Mr. Romney trapped in a punch-counterpunch campaign that would limit his ability to define fundamental differences with the Democrats. In interviews, these Republicans said that Mr. Romney must focus more on what he is for, not just what he is against.

What?!? You mean the general election is not just a referendum on Barack Obama’s performance, or on the economy, as every GOP analyst and talking head has been saying for months? Are Republicans admitting that it actually matters what people think of Mitt Romney and his party’s agenda? How could that be?

Okay, now that I’ve had my fun, let’s all realize that whatever they’ve been saying, Republicans have always understood that at the most fundamental level the general election does involve a choice of two candidates, even if one of them, the incumbent, has a heavier burden or persuasion and mobilization to undertake. Otherwise you would not have seen Republican elites panic earlier this year at the prospect of the spiritual warrior Rick Santorum or the erratic gasbag Newt Gingrich heading the ticket. But it’s interesting how deeply Mitt Romney’s allies seem to be worried about the kind of alternative agenda and “vision” Romney is offering, and how early in the cycle they are beginning to worry that Mitt and his campaign just don’t get it. Perhaps they even think the president can and will make a decent positive case for his own governing record! Imagine that!

It does have to be one thing or another: either Republicans fear the case for “firing” Obama is not as self-evident as they keep saying it is, or they fear there’s something about Romney or the GOP itself that will make it difficult to cross the “credibility threshold” that even the most adament “referendum” advocates will, if pressed, admit challengers must achieve.

Either way, it’s refreshing to see and hear a bit of public self-doubt from the all-conquering party of 2010.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.