Ross Douthat writes something that strikes me as very right (well, he often does that.) Romney’s speech last night was extremely vague on policy. If you went into the night not knowing what Romney wanted to do, you left the night not having learned much of anything. It was all personality (Romney’s) and pretty vague appeals to business class technocracy. Aside from the economy is lousy (which everyone already knows) and “I’m a businessman” (which everyone already knows) we only learned that he some stuff about his parents and children. It is pretty much a nonmessage.
That must sound like a smart (if cynical) play. If you don’t talk about anything real, they can’t attack you for the things you don’t say. The problem is that this is totally wrong. Romney has already laid out a bold policy agenda on Medicare, Social Security, and taxes. The Democrats and their allies are going to get the message out about the content of this agenda. Their spin on Romney’s agenda will of course be hostile, distorted, and in some cases based on outright lies. But if they don’t hear about Romney’s agenda from Romney’s team, then all they will know is what they from the other side. You aren’t avoiding any risks by not talking about your agenda. You can’t control the other side talking. You can help shape what the public thinks about your agenda by talking about it. The personal stuff doesn’t help that much if people think your policies are a bad idea. No persuadable voter will care about your dad giving your mom roses if they think you are going to raise their taxes and make them pay more for Medicare coverage so that you can cut taxes for high earners. The media dynamics are also problematic. If you have a real message then the norms of the “mainstream” media is that they will somewhat cover what you have to say. If you don’t have a message (and I’m the man from Business” isn’t a message) then the other side will define who you are. When the Romney campaign wasn’t talking about anything real, the public debate was a losing fight about Bain and whatever other nonsense of the day the Obama campaign threw out. When Romney picked Ryan and went on the offensive on Medicare, the Obama team (including the media) was on the defensive even though it is usually favorable ground for the Democrats. There is a lesson there. Either be for something or the Democrats will make you into whatever they want you to be.
Maybe the most disturbing this is the thought that Romney really is for nothing (yeah, I know he loves his kids.) Maybe making the campaign about nothing, then for reformism, then nothing again is just a sign that it is all just whatever hustle he thinks will get him through the day and into office.