Between a rock and a hard-right place.
As recently as a few weeks ago, the conventional wisdom was that President Obama was having an awful June, and that his campaign was in deep trouble. The evidence to bolster the thesis was thin, but the political establishment was convinced that Obama's summer was off to such a horrendous start, he might not be able to recover.
These perceptions, naturally, led to quite a bit of handwringing in Democratic circles. Much of this was pointless, and Obama's poll numbers don't look much different than they did in the Spring.
Now, apparently, it's the Republicans' turn to panic.
Over the weekend, it was Rupert Murdoch leading the way, questioning Mitt Romney's staff and overall campaign strategy. Today, it's the Wall Street Journal editorial page -- arguably the nation's most pro-Republican venue in American print media -- sounding the alarm.
[T]he campaign's insular staff and strategy ... are slowly squandering an historic opportunity. Mr. Obama is being hurt by an economic recovery that is weakening for the third time in three years. But Mr. Romney hasn't been able to take advantage, and if anything he is losing ground.
The Romney campaign thinks it can play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it's Mr. Obama's fault.... What [Americans] want to hear from the challenger is some understanding of why the President's policies aren't working and how Mr. Romney's policies will do better. [...]
The biography that voters care about is their own, and they want to know how a candidate is going to improve their future. That means offering a larger economic narrative and vision than Mr. Romney has so far provided. It means pointing out the differences with specificity on higher taxes, government-run health care, punitive regulation, and the waste of politically-driven government spending.
As with the panic in Democratic circles in June, there doesn't seem to be any reason for Republicans to be so overcome with anxiety in early June. There's been no major shift in the polls; there have been no meaningful new scandals; there haven't been any noticeable party defections. The Journal is right to be concerned about the health care fiasco Romney and his advisors have created for themselves, but it's a stretch to think this will have a major impact on the larger race.
Still, the scathing editorial is notable for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the peek it offers into the mind of the Republican establishment at this point in the campaign.
It's interesting, for example, that the WSJ is tired of Romney's avoidance of policy specifics. As we discussed last week, a growing number of observers have noticed the Republican candidate's reluctance to talk in any kind of detail about his own agenda, but when even the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is sick of a Republican's evasiveness, it suggests Romney has pushed his luck a little too far.
As Greg Sargent explained this morning, "The GOP-aligned Journal editorial board is implicitly agreeing that one of the leading critiques of Romney -- one being made by the Obama campaign and Dems, but also by more and more media commentators -- is entirely legitimate: That he's refusing to detail his policies with any specificity to speak of on issue after issue. This goes right to the heart of the central dynamic of this race: The Romney campaign's gamble that he can edge his way to victory by making this campaign all about Obama, and that along the way, voters won't notice that he isn't meaningfully telling us what he would do if elected president. The Journal is calling this out as a non-starter. "
I was also struck by this line in the editorial: "Team Obama is now opening up a new assault on Mr. Romney as a job outsourcer with foreign bank accounts, and if the Boston boys let that one go unanswered, they ought to be fired for malpractice."
Perhaps, but what's the answer, exactly? Isn't it quite obvious that Romney really is a job outsourcer with foreign bank accounts?
It leads to a point Jon Chait raised today: "Conservatives say they want Romney to change his staff or alter his campaign tactics. But what they really want is a different candidate and a different electorate."
And so, Romney is once again stuck. He's getting slammed by the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal -- and Bill Kristol -- for not being the Republican candidate of their dream, but if he were to do as they demand, he'd be soundly rejected by the American mainstream. Still, the former governor wants to do just enough to make the WSJ and Kristol satisfied, assuming that their support is key to keeping the GOP establishment on board.
The results is a candidate who, on a nearly daily basis, is an uncomfortable combination of fear, incoherence, and evasiveness, unsure of who he is, what he thinks, or what he's supposed to say in response to any given question. If Romney had a strong core that defined his character, this wouldn't be an issue.
But the Republican Party is going into the general election with the candidate they have, not the candidate they might want or wish to have under different circumstances.