It is now official: Mr. Willard Mitt Romney is the Republican Party nominee to contest the presidency of the United States in 2012. Mr. Romney acquired the requisite number of delegates in the Republican primary race months ago but it took the party convention to make it official. Now, Mr. Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, have a little more than two months to make their case to the U.S. public that their ticket is the superior choice for the country and the best option to revive the nation’s flagging fortunes.
That notion of “a choice” is a curious decision in itself. Election analysts long insisted that Mr. Romney’s best hope to prevail in the November ballot was to make the election a referendum on the tenure of President Barack Obama. In other words, the challenger was best served by the mere assessment of the incumbent’s four years in office. Ronald Reagan most famously encapsulated this approach when he ran on the simple question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” In those terms, a voter’s choice is binary — better or worse — and the only factors are Mr. Obama’s credibility and performance.
Suggesting that voters should instead choose between the two tickets shifts the analysis. Now, the question is the two competing visions for the nation and the choices are stark. Mr. Romney’s vision was captured by the theme of the convention itself: “We Built It.” This meme was a response to a comment by Mr. Obama on the campaign trail a few weeks ago, when he told an audience that smart, hardworking people had help, that no individual’s success was the product of their effort alone. Rather, societies succeed and individuals benefit from those collective efforts.
The GOP has condensed — and some say distorted — that remark to argue that Mr. Obama is denying the fruits of that individual labor and that he instead seeks to socialize the means of production. Thus, voters must choose between a GOP vision for the United States that emphasizes freedom and opportunity, with a government that is small and unobtrusive, and a Democratic vision that insists government has a role to play in creating opportunities, solving problems, and ensuring that the weakest in society are not abused by those with power and privilege.
The problem for most critics is that Mr. Romney’s vision is a sketch. He has failed to provide details on virtually every topic from energy policy to tax reform, arguing that specifics will only be used to undermine his case. He is right: The more specific a proposal, the easier it is to find its flaws. But the absence of particulars means that the visions are impossible to evaluate because governance is ultimately about picking priorities. Without specifying what matters most — what tax loopholes will be closed, which government agencies reduced in size — voters cannot distinguish between vision and fantasy.
Mr. Romney and his followers insist that voters can trust him. They point to his record as a successful entrepreneur at Bain Capital, his rescue and stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics, and his tenure as governor of Massachusetts. Unfortunately, his Bain record is mixed — he certainly got rich and he was by every indication a “successful investor” — but a president is required to look out after the interests of all Americans, labor included, and there is little in his record to show concerns for workers. Mr. Romney would like to call his term as Massachusetts governor a success, but the signature achievements of his tenure, health care in particular, are anathema to the base of the Republican Party and thus off limits.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the convention’s most high-profile keynote speakers and a likely presidential candidate in 2016, rightfully told the audience that “Our problems are big, and the solutions will not be painless.” He was likely prescient in predicting that “Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the torrent of debt that is compromising our future and burying our economy.” Mr. Romney’s supporters tell voters to have faith in him, echoing the words of his wife, Ann Romney, in her keynote address.
The issue of faith is another curiosity in this year’s campaign. Mr. Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon church. He has served in high positions in his church and takes his faith seriously. While there is much that remains unknown about Mr. Romney’s income tax returns, his commitment to donating 10 percent of his considerable annual income — a practice known as tithing — is another sign of his faith.
His church membership could be problematic for Mr. Romney — ironically enough, for his supporters. The Republican Party base is very religious, but the evangelical Christians who constitute the hardest core supporters of the GOP are also most suspicious of the Mormon church. If the results in November will ultimately reflect the ability of each party to mobilize its most fervent supporters, the biggest question is whether Mr. Romney’s supporters dislike Mr. Obama so intensely that they overlook their misgivings about his religious affiliation. It may prove to be “a choice” for them after all, although it is not the issue — nor the target audience — Mr. Romney had intended.