Mitt Romney has lost each of the last 40 days, each day in its own way. Now his campaign, finally reckoning with a summer of effective fundraising and disastrous messaging, is hoping the waters will recede, and looking for a safe mountaintop on which to land his weathered ark.

Romney’s aides — resigned to the current news cycle until after the Olympics end — said in interviews this week that they see a safe landing: The vice presidential announcement, followed up by the Republican convention, offer Romney a chance to retake control over his own narrative

Other Republicans are split between two conflicting bits of conventional wisdom: That the events of the summer, before swing voters start paying attention, do little to effect the outcome of the race; and that the narratives set in the summer will determine the fall.

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The complaint in recent weeks, as Romney has remained in a tight race with Barack Obama and lingers slightly behind the president in some key states, is that Romney hasn’t presented voters with a concise, understandable plan to improve the economy. “I think if he came up with something that people thought was a clear plan, one that would actually be executed, that would change this race,” a senior Republican strategist said in an interview Wednesday.

Romney, these critics say, has spent a lot of time criticizing Obama and touting his own resume. All well and good, the critics say, but what is he proposing to make things better?…

[T]here’s something else about the Romney campaign that will likely keep Republicans nervous all the way until Election Day. Romney aides believe strongly that this race will play out like the 1980 campaign, in which President Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan for much of the race until Reagan broke through just before the election.

That would fill many Republicans with anxiety and prompt them to offer Romney frantic advice through much of the fall. On Wednesday night, for example, a senior Republican lawmaker noted the Romney campaign’s determination to stick to its long-term plan by asking: “Is it discipline, or is it stupidity?”

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Romney needs to explain to voters why he’s not Bush 2.0. Republican politics have been off-kilter for several years now because a large segment of the conservative base does not look back fondly on the Bush presidency. The mainstream media’s various narratives about the Tea Party ignore a vastly more significant and powerful motivation than the various bigotries and conspiracy theories typically ascribed to them. The Tea Party feels the GOP under Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” gave up the store to big government…

I don’t believe the Republican party would punish Romney for a policy-heavy “Sister Souljah moment.” I’ve made this argument in front of numerous conservative audiences (and recently in the pages of National Review) with little to no objection. My hunch is that Bush himself would be happy to serve as a punching bag if it would help.

Romney shouldn’t attack Bush personally. Nor should he be strident in his criticisms of Bush policies. (There are substantive defenses of his record to be made.) But Romney is under no obligation to defend runaway spending by either party. Indeed, congressional Republicans admitted that, in the words of Representative Mike Pence, “we lost our way” during the Bush years. They subsequently won back the House in 2010.

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The problem with the Romney campaign is that it is all sword, no shield. Romney has a fierce line of attack against Barack Obama. He lacks any defense against the Obama campaign’s counter-charges: that his wealth has isolated him from the concerns of working Americans.

Yet he once had such a defense, a defense he spent his term as governor of Massachusetts developing: Romneycare. The governor who achieved America’s first state-wide system of universal health coverage could be accused of a lot of things, but not of indifference to the welfare of everyday working people…

It’s not too late! It’s not a flip-flop for a candidate to overcome the misguided internal opposition of one party faction, and remind the country of his own prior actions on behalf of working Americans. Mitt Romney, the candidate who supposedly cares nothing for the middle class, in fact led the way on health insurance for all. It’s a message that can fit into a 30-second ad and onto a car bumper sticker. But what the campaign does not say, the country won’t know.

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By now Romney must have noticed that there is no way he can win the communications battle. The deck is stacked against him. But that does not mean he will lose the election. His victory depends on enthusiastic and oversized turnout from the white working class and GOP base. He may recall that Newt Gingrich’s biggest applause lines during the Republican primary debates came whenever the former speaker trained his rhetorical artillery on the press, and criticized self-important television anchors as much as he criticized Obama.

Imagine the delight and excitement that would flood Republican hearts if their nominee—or his running-mate—gave a stem-winder attacking the “tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by Government,” whose views “do not—and I repeat, do not—represent the views of America.” The press would lose its mind, but Republican enthusiasm would jump 10 points.

Take the cookies away. It’s time for Romney to find his own Spiro Agnew.

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But I am not at all convinced that, in the end, Obama is actually winning over voters. Above all, the truly undecided are not really paying attention at the moment. They might have been swayed toward Team Obama a little bit, but I doubt they have been locked down. That being said, I do believe that the president has successfully laid the groundwork for his general election strategy, which Greg Sargent ably summarizes here. Basically, it boils down to the idea that, though the state of the union stinks right now, Romney is an uncaring plutocrat who will make it worse for the middle class. These ads have clearly forwarded that agenda.

We should assume that every voter by Election Day will know this argument by heart. However, they will also be able to recite the Romney rejoinder. The positive side of that case will lean heavily on his biography as a businessman, Winter Olympics fixer, and bipartisan governor to argue that he is the right man to repair the economy.

Team Romney, for various reasons, has only begun to make that case, meaning that the real action has yet to begin.

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Don’t buy the doom and gloom pronouncements from conservatives telling you, “this is the most important election in history.” A loss for Mitt Romney would not necessarily spell long lasting disaster for Republicans, nor would it be the death-knell to conservatism. In fact, it’s possible a 2012 loss could lay the groundwork for a stronger Republican party and conservative movement.

Elections are almost always seen as urgent and morally imperative. But sometimes major victories can only come in the aftermath of what appear to be devastating defeats. John Kerry‘s loss in 2004 laid the groundwork for a Democratic takeover in 2006 and 2008, and Jimmy Carter‘s defeat of Gerald Ford in 1976 paved the way for the Ronald Reagan in 1980. In other words, it is a mistake to assume losing a presidential election is a permanent defeat…

Ultimately, it comes down to this: If one believes (as many do), that the country is hanging by a thread — that Barack Obama is out to destroy democracy — then it is clear he must be defeated. But if one believes that history is unpredictable, that sometimes winning is losing, and that the stable of “rising star” conservatives might need just four more years to fully mature, then the importance of this election becomes a bit less urgent.

It is impossible to know which theory is true. And while most conservatives would advise working hard to elect Mitt Romney, they should not assume that Obama’s re-election, should it happen, would be any more destructive to the cause of conservatism than Bush’s re-election was to the cause of liberalism.