Top Romney advisor: He'll focus more on policy specifics from now on

A footnote to Ed’s post from this morning about the ever-shifting media narrative on Mitt’s next move. Whichever strategy he settles on, filling in the blanks on policy will be part of it:

“We do think the timing is right to reinforce more specifics about the Romney plan for a stronger middle class,” said Romney adviser Ed Gillespie on a conference call with reporters Monday morning. Voters can expect, he said, more specifics on how Romney’s plans to expand domestic energy production and crack down on unfair trade policies from China will help the middle class.

“What we have found is that people want to hear a little bit more of that,” Gillespie said. “Not just to say that we have a plan, but here’s what’s in that plan. And so we think there’s a demand out there for that.”…

Gillespie said the new strategy will be deployed in speeches, events, background papers, campaign surrogate appearances, and in paid advertisements. This refocus will be seen, he said, in Romney’s Monday address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Gillespie also pointed to the campaign’s latest ads, which focus on the debt racked up under Obama and offers more details on Romney’s “plan for a stronger middle class.”

They’ve shied away from specifics on some policies so far because providing them would give Obama’s team a target, and that would upset the broader Romney strategy of making the election a referendum on O. Sounds like they’ve now abandoned the referendum strategy, though (I thought they had abandoned it when they named Ryan VP), and so if they’re going to offer voters a choice, they might as well make that choice as vivid as possible. I think it’s useful to do this, not because the sort of casual swing voter who spends more time watching “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” than the news cares about Romney’s 18-point plan on energy, but because (a) pushing out specific proposals gives Romney more control of the day-to-day media narrative on the race and (b) it helps fill him out in voters’ minds as something more than just “Not Obama.” One of his biggest problems so far, I think, is that it’s been hard to answer the question, “What is his campaign about?” Voters could answer that question easily in 2008 for Obama — it’s about Hopenchange!!1! — but, except for the immediate aftermath of the Ryan pick, when it looked like deficit reduction might surge to the top of the agenda, there hasn’t been a clear answer beyond, “We need someone new to handle the economy.” That was a sound plan with unemployment over eight percent for three years, but it turns out it’s harder than we thought to beat a well-funded incumbent while running, essentially, as “someone new.”

Two humble requests for the new specificity. One: To whatever extent possible, Mitt should contrast his proposals not only with Obama’s but with Bush’s. The GOP’s done well for itself with that strategy in the realm of fiscal policy; Romney should extend it to other policy areas too, as I do think there’s something to the idea that low-information voters are apt to treat him as Dubya II otherwise. (That may help explain why Romney’s “referendum” strategy hasn’t worked as well as hoped. If swing voters see him as another Bush, then they’re bound to conceive of the election as a choice between the last two presidents, not as a referendum on O.) Two: He’s got to connect the specifics of his proposals to bread-and-butter issues. The CSM has a helpful reminder today that, while many voters couldn’t tell you whether the latest jobs report number is good or bad, they can tell you a lot about the price of gas and groceries.

Is that steel plant closing? Are Ford or General Motors rehiring? How much are those groceries? What’s a full tank of gas going to run me? How much is our house worth? How’s that 401(k) doing? When will I find another job? Will our college-educated daughter ever find work and move out.

These are the kinds of questions economists and pollsters say are on people’s minds more than government statistics…

“The flow of economic news matters,” but only to supplement what their own eyes tell them, Mellman added.

I was taken aback over the weekend when my very apolitical brother turned to me at dinner and asked why no one was talking about gas prices. This is the stuff casual voters pay attention to. Every Romney proposal about offshore drilling and nuclear energy should proceed from the threshold question of “How can we make it cheaper for you to fill up your car?” That’s politics 101, I know, but this is the sort of elementary thing that gets lost in the daily diet of nonsense that political junkies like me consume. What can Obama and Romney do to make gas cheaper? What can they do to make bread, milk, meat, etc, a bit less expensive? Penetrate on those questions and you’ve got traction.