The Romney campaign seems unable to make up its mind. In choosing Paul Ryan three weeks ago, it defined the presidential race as a referendum on the American welfare state.
Ryan’s core claim is that unless America radically downsizes the domestic functions of the federal government, the country will end up not only broke, but enslaved. From Ryan to Chris Christie to Marco Rubio, it was that core contention that again and again brought the delegates at the Tampa Bay Times Forum to their feet.
Ryanism is a risky message, since most Americans don’t believe that preserving Social Security and Medicare as entitlement programs will turn the United States into either North Korea or Greece. But it is an exciting one, and the message gave Romney’s campaign an ideological definition it had previously lacked. Instead of merely telling Americans that the economy was bad and it was Obama’s fault, Romney appeared to be turning the election into a battle of ideas.
Then he gave his acceptance speech, and made the campaign dull all over again. Romney’s advisers clearly wanted to convince Americans that he’s a nice and normal guy. And they clearly wanted to remind Americans that under Barack Obama, their economic fortunes have been lousy. And they managed to surmount those low hurdles.
What they didn’t offer was a vision for how Romney would govern the country. Yes, Romney said again and again that he knows how business works and Obama doesn’t, and thus, that he can create jobs. But he said almost nothing about how he’d change America’s tax code or its health-care system or its regulatory apparatus. He barely hit the core Tea Party themes of freedom versus entitlement that Ryan has made central to the campaign. In his speech, Ryan told Democrats to bring on the Medicare fight. In his, Romney largely ducked it. Instead, he did pretty much what conservative pundits had slammed him for doing earlier in the summer: he offered an reassuring personal picture of himself and trusted that America’s economic disgruntlement would do the rest.
The GOP thus leaves its convention with a bold, aggressive message for the country and a candidate who seems hesitant to embrace it. Mitt Romney wants to convince Americans that he can lead the country, but two months from election day, it’s still hard to tell if he’s really leading his party or it’s leading him.