Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why Mitt Romney is losing

By Reihan Salam, CNN Contributor
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri August 10, 2012
Mitt Romney visits a cornfield in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday as his campaign struggles to gain momentum..
Mitt Romney visits a cornfield in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday as his campaign struggles to gain momentum..
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Reihan Salam: The scars of the GOP primaries are dragging Mitt Romney's candidacy down
  • He says Romney moved to the right to win over conservatives, now lacks centrist appeal
  • A variety of innovative ideas could have broadened his appeal, Salam writes
  • Salam: Taking on big banks and cutting energy subsidies would be smart policies for Romney

Editor's note: Reihan Salam, a CNN contributor, is a columnist for The Daily; a writer for the National Review's "The Agenda" blog; a policy advisor for e21, a nonpartisan economic research group; and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream."

New York (CNN) -- Mitt Romney spent weeks battling Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich for the Republican presidential nomination, and he faced blistering attacks from Rick Perry and other GOP rivals along the way. And now he is paying the price.

CNN Poll: Obama holds 7-point lead over Romney

Romney's failure to surpass Barack Obama this summer stems in no small part from his reluctance to make any bold moves on policy, and this reluctance is a direct product of the beating he's taken from conservative critics for much of the last year.

The basic rap on Romney -- who represented, let us not forget, the conservative alternative to John McCain during the 2008 race for the Republican presidential nomination -- was that he wasn't sufficiently conservative. To reassure conservative primary voters, Romney embraced positions on a wide range of issues, from immigration to taxes, that are more popular among reliable Republicans than among swing voters.

Opinion: Reid's Romney smears an insult to voters

Reihan Salam
Reihan Salam

As the political analyst Sean Trende, author of "The Lost Majority," has argued, the central dilemma facing the Romney campaign is that it has essentially secured all of the low-to-medium hanging fruit for a Republican presidential candidate by condemning Obama's economic record. Yet this hasn't been enough to give Romney a lead over the incumbent president.

Indeed, there is at least some reason to believe that the Romney campaign is losing ground. This strongly suggests that the GOP needs a more positive message with crossover appeal. The trouble, of course, is that Romney's efforts to inoculate himself against charges of squishiness have made it very difficult for him to pivot to the center.

What might a more daring Romney campaign have looked like?

Truth about Romney campaign welfare ad
Romney accused of tax shelter role
Gingrich challenged on Romney ad
Bill Burton responds to ad controversy

A more populist Romney campaign would spend time and money bashing the big banks. While Romney has called for repealing the Dodd-Frank Act, the centerpiece of Obama's fitful efforts to reform Wall Street, he hasn't provided much in the way of detail regarding how he'd address the too-big-to-fail problem. Given that anger against taxpayer-funded bank bailouts helped fuel the rise of the tea party movement, and in turn the Republican congressional victories of 2010, this constitutes a serious strategic mistake.

Recently, the right-leaning Government Accountability Institute, led by Peter Schweizer, author of the muckraking manifesto "Throw Them All Out," issued an incendiary report that accuses the Obama administration of neglecting financial fraud prosecutions because of the deep ties between senior Justice Department officials and the uppermost echelons of the financial sector. This is the kind of argument that might resonate among voters reconsidering their 2008 vote for Barack Obama.

Yet this argument would need to be connected to a clear policy narrative about what a Republican president would do to take on the power of the big banks. A number of conservative and libertarian thinkers -- including James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute; Thomas Hoenig, former Fed governor and FDIC director; and Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business -- have called for breaking them up by implementing a modernized version of the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law that created a strict wall of separation between commercial and investment banking.

Sebastian Mallaby of the Council of Foreign Relations, a market-friendly centrist perhaps best known for his exhaustive history of the hedge fund industry, "More Money Than God," has even argued that investors might welcome a bank break-up.

Opinion: Will Obamacare raise the price of your pizza?

Leaving aside the substantive merits of this and other proposals designed to curb the too-big-to-fail phenomenon, this is an accessible idea that would help Romney play against type. So it has come as a disappointment to many on the right that the Romney campaign has been dismissive of the idea.

This could reflect a conviction on the part of the candidate that Wall Street is not in need of a radical overhaul. Or, more cynically, the Romney campaign might be reluctant to alienate influential Republican donors in the financial services industry. Yet the decision to tread lightly on financial malfeasance might cost Romney the election.

Romney's evolution on tax policy is also telling.

During the 1996 New Hampshire GOP primary, Romney, a private citizen at the time, paid for an advertisement criticizing Steve Forbes' signature flat tax on the grounds that it was a giveaway to the ultra-rich. And his original 2012 tax proposal was a fairly modest one, which called for extending the Bush-era tax cuts while also eliminating taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest for married couples earning less than $200,000.

The idea was that this would be a prelude to a larger tax code overhaul. But when Romney feared that Rick Santorum might defeat him in Michigan's crucial Republican primary, he released a far more ambitious, and far more expensive, tax cut proposal that is being criticized as pie-in-the-sky.

Rather than campaign on a deep tax cut that would benefit high-earners, the Romney campaign might have instead championed a revenue-neutral tax reform that cut taxes dramatically on families with children while effectively raising them on childless high-earners.

In effect, this would recognize that parents are making a significant investment in America's economic future and that this investment should be treated favorably. This idea has been championed by conservative policy entrepreneurs such as Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review and Robert Stein, a veteran of George W. Bush's Treasury Department, yet it has met with fierce resistance from The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which sees it as an unjustifiable tax giveaway that is an unhelpful distraction from the need to cut marginal tax rates.

In choosing to embrace the Journal's view, Romney may have sacrificed an opportunity to connect with cash-strapped middle class parents, including many independents and Democrats.

Recently, Eli Lehrer of the pro-market R Street Institute made another suggestion: Instead of simply attacking federal loan guarantees for clean-tech firms such as Solyndra, the federal government should get out of the business of subsidizing the energy sector entirely. Clean-tech subsidies would go, but so would subsidies in the tax code that benefit the oil and gas industries. It is an idea that could in theory appeal to environmentalists, and it would demonstrate that Romney's criticisms of Solyndra aren't just political posturing.

Right now, the Romney campaign seems to believe that it can defeat Obama by running a conventional and cautious campaign. But as the weeks go by and the president's lead remains frozen in place, this is starting to look like a bad bet.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Reihan Salam.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT