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Can Romney Manage to Make This Election Exclusively About the Economy?

In the two months since Eric Fehrnstrom’s “etch-a-sketch” gaffe, many political observers have waited for the iconic moment when Romney would move to the center or distance himself from the toxic conservative ideological battles of the primary season. But without much notice, that etch-a-sketch moment has already happened.

No, Romney has not shifted positions.  Nor has he disrespected the conservative activists whose votes and trust he sought so relentlessly since 2007. What his campaign has done, however, is radically narrow its focus to a single message, one particularly attractive to swing voters: that this election is purely and simply a referendum on Obama’s economy. This focus comes at the expense of the philosophical, social, and cultural topics that dominated the primary season from beginning to end. There’s one problem though: His party’s conservative base may not let him get away with it.

Barely an hour goes by these days without a Romney surrogate staring into a camera and intoning like an incantation that the election is about nothing other than Obama’s responsibility for a poor economy. As Jonathan Chait recently noted, even the much-asked question on Romney’s poor standing with Hispanic voters is routinely answered by citing the economic sufferings of Hispanics and the certainty that they, too, will ignore every other factor and vote for Mr. Fix-It.

The narrow focus of Romney’s campaign makes it easier for him to deal with right-wing efforts to drag the campaign discourse into dangerous areas. This was evident in last week’s brouhaha over reports that billionaire Joe Ricketts and star GOP consultant Fred Davis were discussing a $10 million super PAC ad campaign resurrecting the president’s relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Romney’s campaign quickly repudiated the proposed ad, but just as quickly, RNC chairman Reince Priebus brought things back on message, accusing the Obama campaign of using criticism of the proposed ads to distract from the only issue that matters: Obama’s responsibility for a poor economy.

So long as his campaign doesn’t look like it's on the verge of losing—as McCain looked in the fall of 2008 when conservatives began openly protesting his reluctance to bring up Jeremiah Wright—Romney can probably avoid visible conservative criticism for failing to raise a broader, cultural critique of Obama as a secular-socialist elitist whose association with Wright and Bill Ayers shows he hates America.

But there are other, less controversial, issues important to conservative voters that don’t nicely fit into a monomaniacal focus on the unemployment rate or monthly job figures. Romney is fortunate that Republicans agree that debts, deficits, and the size of government are all highly germane to the case for “firing” Obama on purely economic grounds. But many conservatives are concerned about these themes not because they affect the country’s short-term economic prospects, but for more ideological reasons: because they are morally offended by federal programs that “redistribute” wealth, or by the very idea of progressive taxation, or by the religious implications of environmentalism.

And unsurprisingly, many conservatives want their ideological motivations to be reflected in the Romney campaign's rhetoric. As a result, Romney has been all but forced to endorse Paul Ryan’s budget, which makes explicit the conservative desire to abandon the Great Society safety net and to reverse any public-sector policies that alter the “natural” market-based distribution of wealth. In that way, the Romney campaign has the economic themes of a “centrist” campaign, but, in order to placate the concerns of his base, the details of speeches and other communications sometimes often veer into fringe territory. It is an open question how long the candidate can finesse this tension.

Beyond the cluster of economic-fiscal issues, there are a host of cultural issues which Romney’s campaign is trying to avoid, but which both conservative activists and the Obama campaign may insist he discuss. One of these is “religious liberty”—defined as the right for conservative religious organizations to discriminate against gays and lesbians or against reproductive rights for women. Another is same-sex marriage, an increasingly unavoidable campaign issue that pulls the campaign away from its focus on the economy. Conservative activists will also be eager to campaign against Obamacare, particularly if the Supreme Court forces the issue directly into the center of the presidential contest.

And even if conservative activists—and the Obama campaign—don’t succeed in broadening Romney’s economic focus, another factor may intervene: The economy could improve more than is currently projected between now and November. Chait’s article on the Romney campaign’s economic monomania suggests it will shift to a “Plan B” argument that the economy is just not improving enough. But instead, they may be forced to refocus on all those broader ideological issues—religious liberty, same-sex marriage, and health care, and perhaps more—that they’re currently trying to avoid.  If that happens, then both conservative activists and their enemies in the Obama campaign will get something they want, and the etch-a-sketch will shake up the message yet again.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.