You can’t nail jello to a tree, the saying goes, and it has been the philosophy of the Romney campaign. It’s not working, and if Romney doesn’t change course soon, he’ll enter the twilight zone inhabited by John McCain, Bob Dole and Walter Mondale as they went through the motions in a campaign whose outcome was already known.
On paper, Romney’s “Jello” strategy made sense. First, Romney has a record as a solid businessman who saved the Salt Lake City Olympic games (exaggerated credit, but hey – this is politics) and is known as a pragmatic moderate. He’s in a race against an incumbent suffering an ongoing economic crisis, and whose legislative activism has generated strong antipathy on the right. Still, Obama has a solid campaign team good at opposition research and not afraid to play rough.
The fear in Romneyworld? Team Obama will take apart any specific plan or policy they put forth and use it against them targeting whatever demographic might be most turned off. Worse, they could make the election about comparing plans as the campaign sinks to a morass of detail, rather than it being about replacing a failing President who got in over his head with an experienced private sector success.
The answer? Stay vague. Don’t give them any ammo, say nothing specific that can be used against Romney. Instead, play the game on their own turf, make it about how the President’s plans have failed, put Obama on the defensive. Be jello. If they land a punch – squish – the jello shifts shape and remains. Obama will be flailing but unable to connect. Romney can pick and choose from Obama’s four year record to attack at will.
Won’t people demand specifics? Nope – modern campaigns are about big themes and slogans. Moderates will simply assume that a pragmatic moderate Republican businessman can be trusted. Romney will veer right in rhetoric but people will assume that’s just for politics. The right wing will have to accept the rhetoric and support him because they’re virulently anti-Obama.
Keys: keep it about the economy, avoid distractions, and don’t get suckered into giving details or responding to them. Stay on track, implement the strategy and don’t let the ups and downs of the campaign tempt you to respond! Expect the flip flop charge to work in your favor – moderates won’t believe the scare tactics coming from Obama, but the base will be satisfied that you’re the best choice. Meanwhile massive amounts of negative advertising by outside groups will grind Obama so far down that he’ll be like Dukakis in 1988, diminished and ridiculed. Indeed the rhetoric trotted out this summer by right wing pundits telegraphed that strategy – Obama was described as a desperate and incompetent loser, flailing about uncertainly in order to hold power. Team Romney counted on that image to stick.
Trouble is, the strategy isn’t working. President Obama has found a way to nail jello to a tree – nail the whole box!
Instead of trying to trap Romney on details, the Obama team decided that if Romney didn’t want to paint a clear picture of who he is and what he’ll do, they’d oblige and paint one for them. They’d choose how to define him, and shape the campaign narrative instead. They nailed the entire Romney box to a tree.
Romney is afraid to release his tax returns. He’s secretive. He’s far right. His policies are the same of those of President Bush, the same policies that brought this mess upon us. His foreign policy is bravado and bluster, look where that got us! Talking tough and saying America must be strong sounds like George W. Bush all over again – will Iran be the next Iraq? And it’s working, Romney seems empty, doesn’t seem to stand for anything, and the campaign narrative is being defined by the President’s team. Intrade odds are now 67% for an Obama victory.
I’ve said this before, but now it’s critical. If we are to have a real race for the Presidency Romney has to come out and make a case, take a stand and level with the American people. Being Jello may have seemed to be a good idea on paper, but it isn’t working. I don’t think his campaign yet understands the extent of the change that they need. Consider the focus they’re shifting to the “fiscal cliff.”
The debt ceiling was raised last year in an agreement that if the Congress could agree on spending cuts/revenue enhancements by 2013 automatic spending cuts would snap in place. These include cuts on programs the Democrats support and defense cuts that Republicans are loathe to see implemented. The idea was that the this would force them to compromise. It didn’t work, at least not yet.
Governor Romney is issuing strong denunciations of Obama’s role in this agreement, though it was essentially a bi-partisan compromise. Even Paul Ryan voted for it. Moreover, it’s complex – look at the chart. Warning of a “fiscal cliff” sounds vague and strange to voters. If he gets into the details of what that entails, it gets confusing. I think one mistake the Romney camp has made this year is that they are too “inside politics” in their arguments. They use terms and labels that bloggers and political junkies know, but aren’t connecting to average voters. Politicians need to always remember that the “inside game” is oblique and mysterious to most Americans.
The “Jello” strategy certainly seemed compelling on paper, but it’s failed. Romney can stubbornly stick to it, hoping that bad news and perhaps a stumble by Obama will pull him over the top. Given the economy, that might work (though I doubt it). Or he can do something that some people doubt he knows how to do: be himself. Say what he thinks. Defend the principles he believes in without worrying about what demographic group he might offend, or how the Obama team might use it against him. He can take specific stands and lay out a vision of the future that goes beyond, “hey, I’m a businessman, I know how to run a company, trust me with the country.”
It’s a high risk high reward shift. If he pulls it off, he could beat Obama. If he fails he could turn off his base and risk an even bigger defeat than what now looks likely. Yet the American people deserve to know what the Republican challenger wants for the country. We’re not looking for a CEO, we’re looking for a President. And if Romney refuses to comply, then team Obama will be happy to fill in the blanks and define what Romney’s vision really is.