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Missing an opportunity to define the race

Successful presidential campaigns often have a clear, well-defined theme. In 1992, Bill Clinton talked about "change vs. more of the same." In 2000, George W. Bush offered "compassionate conservatism." In 2008, Barack Obama stressed the importance of "hope and change."

And in 2012, Mitt Romney has, well, an out-of-context quote he accidentally endorsed and a welfare claim he made up out of whole cloth.

Putting aside the specific speeches, what I learned watching the convention last night is just how weak the Republican case against President Obama really is. The GOP argument is supposed to be easy -- the economy is struggling, the public is dissatisfied with the direction of the country, and according to the president's critics, Obama has a trail of failures they can point to.

So why do Republicans feel it's necessary to cling to garbage, making manufactured nonsense the centerpiece of an entire national campaign? Brian Beutler said something last night that resonated with me: "Imagine if the entire Dem convention was organized around 'I like being able to fire people.' Would be ... odd."

‏Quite right. The Romney line about enjoying firing people who provide services to him has, in fairness, been twisted a bit. But before Romney fans say, "A ha! This proves Democrats are just as guilty as taking things out of context!" let's pause to appreciate the fact that this one line isn't the centerpiece of Obama's entire re-election campaign, and Democrats are not building their national contention around the gaffe.

What does it tell us about the strength of the Republican message in 2012 when, in lieu of actual arguments, they're forced to resort to made-up arguments? Indeed, they're not just sprinkling in a few out-of-context lines as applause lines; they're using nonsense as the foundation of their entire election-year push.

It's dishonest, sure, but just as importantly, it's also sad. This year is supposed to be a cycle ripe for the Republicans' picking, but they're stuck with a candidate they don't really like, an agenda they can't tout because the American mainstream would disapprove, and an opponent they consider awful, but unable to attack with legitimate attacks.