Why Romney Lost the Election

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By Josh Barro

Ross Douthat offers a number of indictments of Mitt Romney's failure in today's New York Times, but this one particularly hits the nail on the head:

His party didn’t particularly want to be reinvented, preferring to believe that the rhetoric and positioning of 1980 and 1984 could win again in the America of 2012. You could see this belief at work in the confidence with which many conservatives insisted that the Obama presidency was not only embattled but self-evidently disastrous.

As long as two years ago, Romney settled on strategic policy ambiguity. Romney and his campaign team thought President Barack Obama was such an obvious failure that they could beat him without advancing a substantive policy agenda of their own.

That's how Romney ended up running on a "five point plan" that was just a vague rehash of Bush administration economic policies. His campaign cannot have seriously thought this would inspire struggling middle-class voters. They were banking on voters feeling that any change would be better than the status quo.

This strategy probably would have worked if Obama really were a self-evident disaster. It's basically how Chris Christie beat the self-evident disaster known as Jon Corzine in 2009. But yesterday's median voter was ambivalent about the president's performance. He or she was open to the idea that Romney would do better for the economy, but needed at least a halfway convincing argument about why.

Romney was tempted into this error for a reason. What he needed to offer the median voter -- policies aimed at bringing down unemployment in the near term and raising median wages -- would have been unpopular with conservatives.

Romney couldn't easily run on fiscal stimulus (even from the tax side), monetary easing or housing debt forgiveness. Given the difficulty of getting specific about job creation without alienating the right, vagueness was appealing.

The one policy that served as a major exception is fossil fuel extraction, a job-creating issue that Romney flogged as hard as he could. But it wasn't enough, partly because Obama got so far to the right on the issue himself.

His lack of a fleshed-out middle-class jobs agenda was compounded by his 47 percent gaffe -- Romney didn't make a clear case that he would improve the lives of those who are struggling, and he gave them reason to believe he didn't care that they are struggling.

Romney's decision to punt on the economy was kind of a tragedy, in that Romney is actually a highly competent manager -- far more competent than Obama -- who could have been a great candidate and great president if only he had the right policy agenda.

Of course, "he had the wrong policy agenda" is an awfully large caveat to have to offer about a presidential candidate.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.

-0- Nov/07/2012 16:40 GMT