There's a gray, portentous quality to the Republican National Convention this week, and not just because of the storm clouds.
There's plenty to be hopeful about: a fresh, attractive ticket; the opportunity to make the case against President Obama; what's sure to be a barnburner by Paul Ryan.
But that hope is mixed with dark necessity. This convention has to be good. The most cursory glance at the polling data over the past three months shows why. Barack Obama consistently leads Mitt Romney -- often by margins of error, but the trend adds up. Over the weekend, Rasmussen's Tracking poll put Obama up by two.
Romney needs not just a bounce, but a springboard out of a stagnant rut. A satisfactory speech won't cut it. He needs to provide something tangible; something of substance for voters to grab.
Until recently, much of Romney's strategy was to repeat at every opportunity that he wasn't Barack Obama. It's a fine thing to point out, of course. And Romney did offer some contrast, ticking off that he wanted to decrease the size of government and Obama wanted to grow it, he wanted to make this an American century and Obama wanted to lead from behind, and so on.
The message was: Barack Obama failed to mend the economy and my economic ideas are different than his so vote for me. Some of the sharpest arrows in the quiver, like Obamacare, went unused. The energy of the Tea Party gave way to steady-as-she-goes.
The Obama campaign responded with a relentless barrage of distractions. Look, a war on women! And tax returns! And that time Mitt Romney killed a guy's wife! Romney kept an even keel (one of his most admirable characteristics is his managerial discipline). But the campaign shifted. The focus became Romney the gilded radical, rather than Obama the colossal failure.
But this shift also changed Obama and set the stage for Romney at the convention. It's now obvious to everyone paying attention, save for the most Wasserman-Schultzean of delusional hacks, that the entire lofty, mawkish, hope-and-change, no-red-states-and-no-blue-states hunk of cornbread that Obama served in 2008 was a fraud. The man who was to summon our better angels now assumes us to be overcaffeinated children, staring at shiny objects as he tosses them out of a bag.
Romney's done a fine job of keeping his poker face and attacking Obamanomics. But defining himself as non-Obama won't be enough. Antimatter candidates don't win. You need stuff, matter.
Obama has debased himself. Now it's time for Romney to provide some color and definition to his campaign, and in doing so, stand above his diminutive opponent.
Instead of shouting about how much Obamacare cuts Medicare, Romney should address entitlements head-on at the convention. Use the bully pulpit to declare that the best way to destroy entitlements is do nothing. Reassure seniors that no Republican wants to disrupt coverage for anyone over the age of 55. Appeal to young voters, who will inherit tens of trillions in entitlement debt without reform. Offer to look at solutions from both sides. Make the Mediscare demagoguery look as cheap as it really is.
Democrats are shrieking that Republican policies will result in a genocide of senior citizens. But seniors favor Paul Ryan's budget over Barack Obama's. If Romney offers an honest, problem-solving approach to entitlements, he'll beat the president on his own turf.
And if Romney won't adopt all of the Tea Party's solutions, at least embrace its spirit. Matthew Continetti recently wrote about how Paul Ryan's natural rights rhetoric hearkens back to 1776. Republicans sometimes take a beating when they propose specific cuts to government programs, since somebody's backyard is always being defunded. But the broad, historical, conservative idea -- that the best government governs least -- is always popular. A recent Fox News poll found 54% want government to "leave me alone" while 35% want Washington to "lend me a hand."
Romney should rally the country to its first principles. He should use the convention to cast the battle between individual freedom and collectivist statism.
The selection of Paul Ryan shows he may be ready to draw this line. That he went against his cadre of lukewarm advisors -- the people who drove him into the stagnant rut -- is even more promising. Romney's been called an extremist, a tax fraud, and a killer of women. It's time to respond with an inspired, full-throated declaration of purpose. He has exactly nothing left to lose.
Whatever the weather is like in Tampa, Romney should sail into the storm. By handing voters something solid, he'll tower above the diminished president and give everyone a reason to stand with him.