Who is Mitt Romney? The American people want to know. And Barack Obama is only too willing to tell them.
For weeks now, the president has outspent Romney, relentlessly attacking him as an out-of-touch rich guy who wants to outsource our jobs and eliminate women’s health services. The Obama campaign has even gone so far as to make the absurd claim that the clean-cut Romney is a felon.
Although the Romney campaign has fired back in press releases, the candidate himself has taken the attacks in stride. It’s a strategy that some Republican insiders think brilliant. Why lend legitimacy to Obama’s silly claims? Romney, they argue, needs to remain above the fray.
But it is one thing to try to appear presidential, and quite another to let your opponent completely define you.
Is Mitt Romney, like George H.W. Bush, simply too polite and too modest to defend himself? Humility is not a bad trait. But Romney, not Obama, must tell the Romney story.
Don’t get me wrong, fighting back doesn’t mean becoming defensive. And defining oneself does not mean providing more policy specifics.
On the contrary, Romney should not fall into the trap of responding tit-for-tat to Obama’s half-truths and lies. Nor should he campaign on an itemized list of programs he favors or dislikes. Doing so risks putting the American public to sleep and would allow the opposition to pick him apart bit by bit. Death by a thousand cuts.
In defining himself, Romney must focus on two related themes: 1) conveying his life story in a way that reveals his passions, his core values and his hopes for America, and 2) using that narrative to provide a sharp contrast between himself and the president.
Although Romney often seems uncomfortable discussing himself, he has at least taken steps toward defining the ideological contrast between himself and Obama.
In December 2011, Romney published an oped in USA Today, in which he argued that the choice facing voters in November is between an entitlement society and an opportunity society.
It was a good start. But the ideological message was soon lost in the minutiae of the GOP primary and subsequent individual skirmishes over Obamacare, jobs and taxes.
Romney must now paint with broad thematic strokes. He must demonstrate how, collectively, Obama’s approach to all of these issues increases dependence on government and divides Americans into disparate factions warring for government handouts from an ever-shrinking pie.
He must show this approach to be both morally wrong and economically unsustainable. He must paint Obama as an ostrich with his head in the sand — a president who would rather blame others and punish the professional class than reform entitlements or make tough budgetary choices.
Most importantly, he must paint himself as more than just a competent steward of the economy. He must use his life story to present himself as a bold and inspired leader — one who is willing to challenge special interests in order to achieve structural reform that will put America on a stronger footing and expand opportunity for all.
Whether Romney is correct to wait to tell this story remains to be seen. But tell it he must.
Last week, Romney rightly criticized Obama for saying that, although he told a good story during the 2008 campaign, he has not done a good enough job as president of selling his agenda to the American people.
“President Obama believes that millions of Americans have lost their homes, their jobs and their livelihood because he failed to tell a good story,” Romney said. “Being president is not about telling stories.”
But, as Barack Obama understood in 2008, getting elected is.