It's more than miserable hot weather that's causing our grumpiness toward the Romney campaign. Romney's summer doldrums have him stuck behind the comprehensively beatable Obama. We're impatient, but we have the right to be. Romney seems to be letting our side down.
House Speaker John Boehner's statement that "…the American people probably aren't going to fall in love with Mitt Romney" isn't enough to cause Romney's campaign to panic. Boehner's statement -- typical of the Republican establishment's attitude and probably meant to calm our restiveness -- should cause Romney more than a moment's pause.
Romney was badly damaged by the criticisms he suffered in the primary campaign. Some of that damage lingers. It could result in a depressed voter turnout in November that would be fatal to his campaign. In the dog days of summer, Romney has time to reassess his strategy and chart a winning path to November. But will he?
By now, Romney should be drawing ahead of Obama, but he isn't. The problems that are keeping Romney's poll numbers below Obama's go much deeper than unforced errors or unnoticed speeches.
There are two big factors behind the sinking confidence in Romney. First is his unwillingness to engage on issues other than the economy. Second is the lack of Romney's ideological focus.
Polling this long before the election doesn't reveal who will win. But those polls do reveal the swaying of voters' opinions of the two candidates. Since before February of 2011, Obama hasn't polled above 50%. He's a weak candidate who can't get around the problems we face at home and abroad. Since April of this year, Romney has had two periods of quick rises in the polls and one when he suffered a quick drop. The rises and falls were small: usually about two or three percent, but they are nevertheless instructive.
Between April 26 and May 10, Romney's polling rose about two points. In that time, the most important events were Newt Gingrich's withdrawal and Vice President Biden's strong criticism of Romney's "Cold War mindset." The Biden criticism could be ruled out as the cause of Romney's poll bump but for one fact: it was repeated in the next period of a Romney bump between May 28 and June 3 when Romney made a strong Memorial Day speech in which he said that the world is a dangerous place and warned against the unilateral disarmament that our NATO allies have been pursuing for decades.
The third instructive period was around the time of the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision. Then, Romney dropped and Obama rose in the polls to their largest gap in recent months. Romney's waffling resulted from a statement by top campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom's absolving Obama of raising taxes despite the court's characterization of the mandate as a tax. When Romney later accused Obama of hiking taxes in the guise of the unpopular mandate, the flip-flop left a lot of Republicans baffled. (Fehrnstrom was also the author of the "etch a sketch" comment that damaged Romney last spring.)
Romney should learn from all these incidents. The first lesson is that voters' concern about the economy isn't the only thing on their minds. Defense and foreign policy aren't their top concerns, but they may be enough to sway a lot of votes in November. January will deliver more than "Taxmageddon": defense spending will be cut massively by the "sequestration" mechanism Congress created in last summer's debt increase deal. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon has been a voice in the wilderness campaigning against it. Why isn't Romney speaking out?
Where was Romney's response to Hillary Clinton's apology to Pakistan for the November incident in which about two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed by an American air strike when they opened fire on our troops. Americans don't like apologies for U.S. actions, especially those that save American lives on the battlefield. Romney's reflexes were, once again, dulled by his unwillingness to engage.
Romney and his staff lack the awareness that would cause him to pick useful fights. His focus on the economy drove him to attack Obama on the new jobs report last week -- which he did with all the force that was appropriate -- but that focus dulls his other responses when Obama makes a move that reveals his radical liberalism.
Which leads us to the principal problem: Romney's discomfort with the basics of conservative ideology.
Republicans win when they nominate ideological candidates because it is only they who can draw sharp distinctions between them and the Democrats. When Republicans run a non-ideological candidate such as John McCain against a Barack Obama -- who hid his radical liberal ideology behind a smokescreen of "hope and change" -- they lose. Romney lacks the conservative ideological mindset just as McCain did.
Romney won't evolve into an ideological conservative between now and November. But unless he chooses a running mate who is -- and can carry the conservative messages on issues Romney is neglecting -- he will lose. Romney needs a known, skillful conservative who can take the conservative messages to the voters on defense, foreign policy, and the other important non-economic issues with which Romney feels uncomfortable.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan would serve Romney on the economy and the other issues very well. If he doesn't choose Ryan, Romney will have to choose a running mate who will be a bit of a surprise. Someone such as HASC Chairman Buck McKeon or Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama would fill the gap in Romney's ideology and expertise.
Many of the criticisms of Romney's campaign are aimed at his campaign staff, and appear justified. The Wall Street Journal wrote last week that if Romney's "Boston boys" let Obama get away with accusing Romney of being "outsourcer in chief" on jobs, they should be fired for political malpractice. And so they should. A campaign shakeup at this stage of the campaign would be no more than normal and wouldn't hurt Romney. It could, instead, help rouse him from the summer doldrums that beset his campaign. It's also the least likely action he'll take because of his misplaced loyalty to his troops who repeatedly let him down.
But Romney's choice of a running mate or any replacement of key campaign staff can't overcome the reason for his basic weakness. It all comes down to him, and he has to find it in himself to connect with voters before the Republican Convention in late August. If he can't build a strong campaign momentum going into the convention it will be hard, if not impossible, to do so later.
Obama's vulnerability is in the radical liberalism that shapes everything he does. Perhaps I've missed it, but I can't find a single instance in which Romney has labeled Obama that way. The most common accusation against Romney is that he's risk averse. But how risky is it to speak about the radical liberalism that is represented by Obamacare, the disarming of America, and Obama's back-door amnesty for illegal immigrants? It's not enough to criticize Obama's actions. It's essential to create an accurate characterization of Obama that will dominate the remainder of the campaign.
The late Robert Novak once told me that when a person goes into the voting booth and pulls a lever for a presidential candidate, he's making as personal a choice as choosing a spouse. Obama made the 2008 race personal. Romney needs to make the campaign a personal choice between his ideology and Obama's.