WSJ Calls For Comparative Campaign

Anyone who’s been watching the presidential campaign for any length of time knows that the two camps have different ways of “framing” the election: Team Romney insists that it is and can only be a straight referendum on the president’s economic record, while Team Obama calls for a comparative choice between two agendas and two governing philosophies. While some progressive political science types don’t think Obama can succeed in getting voters to think this way, they do understand why he feels constrained to try.

But there are growing signs of unhappiness on the Right with the Romney “frame.” Via Greg Sargent, check out these lines from an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, focused initially on Romney’s vacillation on the “is the mandate a tax” issue, but really aimed more broadly at Mitt’s “referendum” strategy:

This latest mistake is of a piece with the campaign’s insular staff and strategy that are slowly squandering an historic opportunity. Mr. Obama is being hurt by an economic recovery that is weakening for the third time in three years. But Mr. Romney hasn’t been able to take advantage, and if anything he is losing ground.

The Romney campaign thinks it can play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it’s Mr. Obama’s fault. We’re on its email list and the main daily message from the campaign is that “Obama isn’t working.” Thanks, guys, but Americans already know that. What they want to hear from the challenger is some understanding of why the President’s policies aren’t working and how Mr. Romney’s policies will do better.

The WSJ also thinks that the thin nature of Romney’s “positive” message–which focuses mostly on his allegedly dazzling business career–sets him up for the kind of attacks the Obama campaign is beginning to wage with tangible impact:

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is assailing Mr. Romney as an out-of-touch rich man, and the rich man obliged by vacationing this week at his lake-side home with a jet-ski cameo. Team Obama is pounding him for Bain Capital, and until a recent ad in Ohio the Romney campaign has been slow to respond.

Team Obama is now opening up a new assault on Mr. Romney as a job outsourcer with foreign bank accounts, and if the Boston boys let that one go unanswered, they ought to be fired for malpractice.

All of these attacks were predictable, in particular because they go to the heart of Mr. Romney’s main campaign theme—that he can create jobs as President because he is a successful businessman and manager. But candidates who live by biography typically lose by it. See President John Kerry.

Interesting, eh? But you have to wonder if underlying the WSJ’s tips-from-the-coach strategic advice is something a little more fundamental: a concern that a Romney victory that is not based on an explicitly ideological message won’t create a “mandate” for the kind of policies the paper wants to see implemented. They are more than willing to give Obama the comparative campaign he wants and needs to make sure the mortgage to Mitt’s soul stays in the right hands.

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.