Can Mitt Romney Return to ‘Referendum’ Message?

by Stuart Rothenberg April 18, 2012 · 9:49 AM EDT

Three months ago, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney had a very clear message: President Barack Obama had failed to turn the economy around or create jobs and, therefore, didn’t deserve another term.

It was a succinct, uncomplicated message, based on easily accessible unemployment and job numbers, as well as on the public’s dissatisfaction with the president’s performance.

More recently, the Romney message morphed into one much more about competing visions for the future, about what kind of country this is and will be. He has embraced the budget put forward by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (R).

That change, which stemmed partly from the changing economic and political environment — including substantial job growth, a sinking unemployment rate, growing consumer confidence and a rising stock market — and partly from Romney’s need to appeal to conservatives during the Republican nominating process, puts the likely GOP nominee in a more difficult position heading into the general election.

Simply put, the “choice” argument is more difficult to make successfully than the “referendum” argument. A referendum, after all, is entirely about the president and his performance. It doesn’t invite a comparison. Underlying it is the implicit assumption that the alternative to Obama is acceptable and couldn’t do a worse job than he has.

But the “choice of visions” message doesn’t merely invite a comparison of the candidates, it requires one. It injects the Republican Party and its nominee into the voting equation. And that’s clearly fine with the White House, which surely would like the presidential election to be a popularity contest.

“This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class. I can’t remember a time when the choice between competing visions of our future has been so ambiguously clear,” Obama said in his April 3 speech at the Associated Press luncheon.

Conservatives invariably call for a “choice” election because they find the Obama vision so appalling that they assume everyone will agree with that assessment. (Ideologues of both the left and the right generally seem to assume that they will be clear winners in the “vision” and “values” debate.) Both former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) pushed for a “big” election this year.

In fact, Republicans — and Romney in particular — ought to be very careful about falling into the trap of making the 2012 elections a choice of grand visions.

First, while the most conservative of Republicans can’t seem to think of a thing (other than defense) that government should do, most voters have a decidedly more mixed view of government.

Yes, most voters seem to agree, government spends and taxes too much, is inefficient and interferes too much in privatdecisions, but those same voters also look to government for student loans, highway spending, Medicare, retirement benefits, clean air and clean water programs and innumerable other federal programs.

And it isn’t as if the president will simply allow Republicans to define him as they wish. He’ll fight back, as he did in his April 3 speech when he said, “I have never been somebody who believes that government can or should try to solve every problem.”

“I’ve eliminated dozens of programs that weren’t working and announced over 500 regulatory reforms that will save businesses and tax payers billions,” Obama said before asserting, “I know the true engine of job creation in this country is the private sector, not Washington, which is why I have cut taxes for small-business owners 17 times over the last three years.”

Obviously, Republicans will counter that he has governed very differently, but they may well be underestimating the appeal of the president’s vision, especially to people who have come to rely on government programs.

Second, Romney is particularly ill-suited to make the “choice of visions” argument, and Obama is particularly able to make that case.

“Mitt is a problem-solver, and economic mechanic, a turnaround guy,” one GOP strategist who isn’t part of Romney’s campaign but is a strong supporter of the likely Republican nominee told me recently. “Nobody can beat Obama on vision, hope and change,” he added.

Remember, Ronald Reagan, who was skilled at communicating an appealing conservative vision, didn’t win the election in 1980 because he won “a choice of visions.” He won because the Carter presidency was a disaster, both in terms of the economy and foreign policy. Reagan won a referendum election, not a vision election. (“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”)

Romney now seems to have the opportunity to make the 2012 election about the president’s performance.

With the GOP race now history, the former Massachusetts governor doesn’t need to prove his conservatism, and that means he can return to his initial approach of trying to make the November election a referendum on the past four years.

More importantly, perhaps, the latest jobs numbers — only 120,000 jobs created last month — and the uptick in applications for jobless benefits in March (up to 380,000, much higher than anticipated) create doubts about the recovery and an opportunity for Romney to return voters’ focus to Obama.

Improving economic numbers played into the president’s hand and forced Romney to look for a different message than his initial one about jobs and leadership. But if jobs numbers going forward raise new questions about the economy, he may just find that making the 2012 contest a referendum on Obama’s performance is both the easiest and best way to win the White House, no matter how much conservatives long for a “big” election about values and the proper role of government.