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What Romney's Campaign Can Learn from Newt Gingrich
Back during the Republican debates, I often thought to myself that Newt Romney (a monolithic character coined by Michele Bachmann as a method of criticizing her GOP rivals) would actually be a really good presidential candidate for the GOP. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich's best qualities seemed to fill the void of where the other was lacking. Mitt Romney was smooth, both in his appearance and delivery. He had little political baggage, a solid business background, a good record of achievement, and he oozed confidence and competence at ever pore. Newt Gingrich showed an uncanny knack for delivering the kind of dialogue conservatives were starved to hear. He was well-researched, blunt, full of ideas, and showed a genuine passion for returning this country to greatness.
In the end, after a bitterly-contested primary, Romney came out on top and secured the nomination. What he hasn't secured, however, is the passion and messaging it takes to become a strong candidate in the eyes of the electorate.
In a perfect country, candidates would be judged primarily on their experience, their vision, and their records of achievement. But we don't live in a perfect country. We live in a media-driven country where talking heads can muddle facts and logic so effectively that all it takes is establishing an emotional connection with voters to become the leader of the free world.
In my last column, I described how the Obama campaign has been successfully employing television advertisements in swing-states that are striking a chord with voters. The ads seem to be having the most significant effect in Ohio, where state-wide polls now show that the president has pulled up to an eight point lead over Mitt Romney. Not so long ago, the two were essentially tied in that state. Despite the numerous, non-partisan fact-checking groups that have debunked the content of the Obama ads as works of fiction, there's no doubt that they are working with voters.
Again, in a perfect country, you could rely on the national news media to conclusively expose such falsehoods. As we all know, however, most of the news media has a vested interest in Obama winning re-election, so they're not going to be particularly helpful.
For those of us who understand just how terrible of an economic situation this country is in, the current, prevailing narrative of the presidential campaign is beyond frustrating. We're watching President Obama turn the United States of America into Greece before our very eyes. We see $16 trillion of U.S. debt, European levels of unemployment becoming the new norm, anemic economic growth, and new entitlement programs being added to our already failing ones. Yet, the administration's defense - a defense that actually seems to be a winning one at the moment - is that Mitt Romney is rich and he doesn't care about you!
It would be laughable if the stakes weren't so high.
The commercials have put Romney on the defensive, and thus far his campaign hasn't figured out how to deal with the slander. It makes you wonder if Romney's guys honestly believed that all they'd have to do to win in November was point at Obama's abysmal economic numbers and offer up a competent alternative in their guy. It's far from that simple, of course.
The Romney campaign needs to get it through their skulls that while the facts play to their advantage, they won't guarantee their candidate a win unless he bluntly addresses the nation's monumental problems with the passion and dedication that they deserve.
Newt Gingrich was a master at this. In the Republican primary debates, while Romney was choosing his words carefully and stating a logical case for his candidacy, Gingrich was expressing absolute appall over the consequential failures of the Obama administration. He framed his arguments not just with facts and figures, but broke them down into what those facts and figures meant to the average American. He spoke to different trades and age demographics, using the word "breathtaking" over and over again when describing our country's downward spiral under the leadership of President Obama. With Gingrich, you were left with the impression that he was legitimately alarmed with what was happening to his country. His passion was infectious. So much so that whenever he competed in a televised debate, his poll numbers would jump up significantly the next day. That passion even won him the South Carolina primary.
What Gingrich proved is that if you deliver a message that is not only strong but also personal, you can effectively combat whatever stigmas you've been branded with. The narrative becomes less about you as a person, and more about what you're running on. As we know, Newt obviously had a lot of well-known personal and professional baggage that would have made most presidential candidates a non-starter. For that reason, no one believed that he stood any chance with voters in the socially-conservative state of South Carolina. He proved them wrong.
In Mitt Romney's case, the stigma that's hurting him isn't nearly as tall of hurdle to overcome as Gingrich had to deal with. Romney's not on his third wife. He's never had to deal with a public, messy divorce. He's never been brought up on ethics charges. The only stigma he has to deal with is that of being really, really rich. And if he fixes his messaging, no one will care about that stigma.
What does Romney need to do?
First of all, he needs to stop being on the defensive. It's not his leadership that is presiding over a nation in rapid decline. It's President Obama's.
Romney needs to start expressing outright appall over the mind-numbing lack of urgency coming from President Obama when it comes to dealing with the most dire challenges our country faces. He can no longer go the route of simply saying that the president is just in over his head. He needs to sound the alarm, and frame exactly what Obama's neglect and failed policies have done not just to the country as a whole, but to individual Americans and their families. He needs to explain why it's going to keep getting harder for people to find employment, provide for their families, and leave their children with the same opportunities that they grew up with.
He needs to stop worrying about differentiating Romneycare from Obamacare. Massachusetts is not the United States of America. Instead he needs to explain, in blunt terms, the burdens Obama's law places on the quality of our healthcare and the costs it places on our family budgets.
He needs to stop assuming that people understand what $16 trillion in national debt means to them and their families, and actually explain it to them.
He needs to explain to parents why their kids who just graduated from college can't find jobs, and why the job market will continue to struggle until the president stops standing in the way of pro-growth policies.
He needs to speak out against the political polarization that has left Americans at odds with Americans. He should tell voters that as their president, he won't waste a single breath blaming others for the country's problems. Instead he'll commit to fixing those problems. He should tell voters that he won't create false controversies to distract them from the very real challenges our country faces.
Most importantly, it's not enough that he directs people to his website and speaks in generic terms about his alternate vision. He needs to make the case, and show some gusto as he does it. I don't buy the repeated notion that Romney's just not that kind of guy when his supporters try to defend his lack of enthusiasm. That's bologne. I've seen the man show some some heart in past debates. I know he's capable of it. We just don't see it nearly enough. My guess is that his handlers are worried he'll come across as angry or condescending if he tries, but that's a chance I think they'll have to take.
This election is absolutely winnable for Mitt Romney. He still has time on his side. He certainly has the failed record of President Obama on his side, and that's not going to change between now and November. All he has to do is take a page out of the Gingrich playbook, and make a strong, impassioned case for why the country desperately needs him right now. If he does that, his personal wealth becomes a non-issue.