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We'll Always Have Denver

Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney's chief strategist, has an op-ed in the Washington Post defending the campaign he led, and he's getting flak for suggesting that the campaign won a moral victory of sorts because Romney did better than Barack Obama among everyone but the unwashed masses: "On Nov. 6, Romney carried the majority of every economic group except those with less than $50,000 a year in household income. That means he carried the majority of middle-class voters."

But this sort of thinking—call it 47 percenterism—is old hat from the Romney camp. More interesting, to me, was Stevens's attempt to make the case that the Romney campaign was actually about something. Stevens's interest here is plain: as the campaign's chief strategist, its David Axelrod, he was tasked with framing its overarching themes, while it was left to others to buy TV time and develop voter-turnout tracking tools (both botched, as it turns out.) And Stevens has reason to be defensive: reporting throughout the campaign, including my colleague Noam Scheiber's excellent profile of the colorful Stevens, described his firm belief that it would be sufficient for Romney to run on a simple message: things are lousy under Obama, and they'll be better under me. This turned out not to be sufficient, and Stevens is now eager to argue that Romney was in fact running on much more than that:

He defended the free-enterprise system and, more than any figure in recent history, drew attention to the moral case for free enterprise and conservative economics.
When much of what passes for a political intelligentsia these days predicted that the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan meant certain death on the third rail of Medicare and Social Security, Romney brought the fight to the Democrats and made the rational, persuasive case for entitlement reform that conservatives have so desperately needed. The nation listened, thought about it — and on Election Day, Romney carried seniors by a wide margin. It’s safe to say that the entitlement discussion will never be the same.

Let's take each of these in turn. Did Romney defend the free-enterprise system? Well, yes, because he was thrown badly on the defensive over his years at Bain Capital, starting during the Republican primaries. But that defense was plainly inadequate, especially during the early summer months when the Democrats were blasting away at Bain and Romney couldn't afford to pay for counterattack ads his campaign had produced (they featured workers at Bain-owned companies who had nice things to say about him).

Did he "draw attention to the moral case for free enterprise and conservative economics"? Well, sure: in his "47 percent" riff at a Boca Raton fundraiser, he laid bare the mindset of "conservative economics" in such an unvarnished, unappealing form that even dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite capitalists blanched in horror. If this was the "moral case" for free enterprise, then its critics will have a much easier time painting it as immoral in the future.

Did he "bring the fight" on entitlement reform? He did not. He picked Paul Ryan as his running mate, presaging such a fight, but then shrank from it. Rather than making the case for reining in Medicare, he attacked Obama for having trimmed Medicare to help pay for Obamacare. Social Security, meanwhile, went entirely unmentioned. This is why it's rich for Republicans now to be pushing for big entitlement cuts in exchange for tax increases on the wealthy; Obama ran on the latter, but Republicans did not run on the former.

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No, despite Stevens's best efforts, it's hard not to conclude that the Romney campaign was as lacking in substance as any in recent memory, and has left so light a footprint that it would require expert forensics to discern its tread.* The final proof of this was Romney's concession speech on Election Night, in which the candidate was left with no theme or mission to point to as a cause that would carry beyond the campaign:

I believe in America. I believe in the people of America. And I ran for office because I'm concerned about America. This election is over, but our principles endure. I believe that the principles upon which this nation was founded are the only sure guide to a resurgent economy and to a renewed greatness. Like so many of you, Paul and I have left everything on the field. We have given our all to this campaign. I so wish ... I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction, but the nation chose another leader, and so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation. Thank you and God bless America. You guys are the best. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thanks, guys.

But in fact, there is one thing for the campaign to hold on to, one fading snapshot to bring out on late nights of regret and hot chocolate. Stevens writes:

When Mitt Romney stood on stage with President Obama, it wasn’t about television ads or whiz-bang turnout technologies, it was about fundamental Republican ideas vs. fundamental Democratic ideas. It was about lower taxes or higher taxes, less government or more government, more freedom or less freedom. And Republican ideals — Mitt Romney — carried the day.

Ah yes, Denver. Denver, Denver. Leave aside that the first debate wasn't really about "fundamental Republican ideas vs. fundamental Democratic ideas" since Romney trounced Obama in the debate precisely by Etch-a-Sketching his campaign positions and tacking away from the party line—above all on the subject of taxes—at such a clip that it left Obama adrift and bewildered. Regardless, for those 90 minutes, and the media-ballyhooed polling surge that followed, Romney looked like he might be a winner. But then he wasn't. Oh well. Thanks, guys.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis

*I tweaked the post for slightly more apt figurative phrasing here.