Romney’s Unlikely Trouble with Details

The PowerPoint candidate should be Mr. Specific. He isn't, and that could hurt him with the voters who count most

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Charles Dharapak / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference in Orlando on June 21, 2012

My friend Jonathan Martin of Politico wrote an important article with Alexander Burns over the weekend highlighting what they called Mitt Romney’s “no-policy problem.” Here’s the argument:

Vague, general or downright evasive policy prescriptions on some of the most important issues facing the country are becoming the rule for Romney. Hoping to make the campaign strictly a referendum on the incumbent, the hyper-cautious challenger is open about his determination to not give any fodder to Obama aides hungry to make the race as much about Romney as the President.

Romney is remarkably candid, almost as though he’s reading the stage directions, about why he won’t offer up details: he thinks it will undermine his chances to win.

“The media kept saying to Chris, ‘Come on, give us the details, give us the details,’’’ Romney has said about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial race. “‘We want to hang you with them.’”

It’s a lesson the former Massachusetts governor said he took from his first, painful foray into electoral politics in 1994.

“One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” Romney told the Weekly Standard this spring.

Martin and Burns also cite Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal on the point and include an interesting set of observations from Mario Cuomo.

A quiet consensus is forming, then, that Romney, he of the endless economic proposal of the primary season, is, especially on immigration, taking a calculated decision that specifics will only create trouble. By floating above it all and turning all attention to President Obama, the Republican nominee hopes, it seems, to unite generally by declining to divide with details with which some people will inevitably disagree.

(MORE: Obama’s “Pottery Barn” Strategy)

It’s an interesting play, but I think it’s most perilous with the swing voters in key states, who will in fact decide whether Obama or Romney is to be President for the next four years. By their very nature, independents tend to look more closely at candidates than the strongly partisan do (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be independents).

And while such voters decide on the broader ethos, they’re also pretty savvy political consumers, and they want to know what they’re getting. (As an aside, an elusive Romney will not help him convince people that he has a core, a problem he unquestionably faces.)

(MORE: What History Tells Us About Romney’s Chances)

The PowerPoint, data-driven former governor should be true to himself and give us the details. We’ll give him a break if circumstances change — we usually do — but vagueness is not a reliable path to ultimate power.

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