Is it possible that Mitt Romney, in his campaign for the presidency, has been too focused on the economy?
The presumptive GOP presidential nominee has focused intently on turning the election into a referendum on President Barack Obama, rarely veering from making the case that the Democratic incumbent has failed to manage the economy.
Most every issue but the economy is viewed as a distraction by Romney’s high-command in Boston; it dismisses hand-wringing over issues like Donald Trump, Democrats’ claims of a “war on women,” or the president’s recent order on young illegal immigrants as a distraction. When Romney reacts to those topics, he quickly works to reframe them in terms of jobs and the economy.
But the “economy-colored” prism through which every issue is refocused by the Romney campaign could risk votes at the margins of some key constituencies. Moreover, by leaving questions about his approach to other issues unanswered, Romney gives Democrats an opening to fill the void in describing his alternatives.
Romney supporters praise the campaign’s focus as the mark of a discipline that’s characteristic of a winning campaign.
“When you ask voters what the most important issue is they say the economy and jobs, and you've got a president who is very vulnerable on that number one issue,” said Charlie Black, an outside adviser to the Romney campaign. “Why would you ever talk about anything else?”
Detractors, though, worry whether Romney has let some issues linger at his own expense.
“The campaign basically looks at anything that distracts from the economy as unfortunate,” said another outside Romney adviser, who requested anonymity so as to avoid offending the campaign’s leadership. “That's not a sustainable position -- you have to be prepared to discuss all issues.”
Conservative pundit Ramesh Ponnuru also wrote Wednesday that Romney should broaden his scope. “I think this way of thinking about the campaign is mistaken. Yes, the economy is the top concern of voters and should be the main focus of the campaign. But I think voters expect presidents to be able to deal with a wide range of issues,” Ponnuru wrote on National Review’s “The Corner” blog.
A prime example comes as Romney wrestles with responding to the Obama administration’s order last week halting deportations of illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, allowing them instead to apply for work permits.
At a speech on Thursday before elected Latino officials, Romney again sidestepped open questions about whether he would reverse the president’s order. He repeated his preference for a “long-term” plan that would “supersede” Obama’s order, and laid out several other piecemeal solutions.
But Romney declined to delve into how he would address the 12 million immigrants living in the United States unlawfully, and he didn’t describe his vision for his long-term reform.
He instead -- true to form -- reframed his pitch to Latinos in terms of the economy.
“Is the America of 11 percent Hispanic unemployment the America of our dreams? We can do better,” Romney told the NALEO conference.
Romney’s been loath to provide specifics even for some of his more comfortable policy areas. In his interview with CBS last weekend, the former Massachusetts governor refused to specify the tax loopholes he would eliminate to finance his tax or entitlement reform plans.
Romney had avoided giving the Obama campaign any length of rope they could use to hang him, either on immigration or the budget.
“Give the president credit on immigration: It was a great trick play,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a veteran Republican campaigner.
Cole said that Romney would be well-advised to avoid entanglements on extraneous issues, and focus instead on hammering away his message about the economy.
“The president is an extremely gifted politician with a very fine political team. Playing politics against him is probably not the way to beat him,” Cole said.
But Romney is facing mounting pressure from the Obama campaign, which is conscious of its opponent’s evasiveness, to specify his positions.
The Romney Team, though, maintains tight control over the candidate and the message. It tends to opt for interviews with friendly media, and Romney himself can be a portrait of discipline on the trail; he’s scarcely made any of the missteps he had in the primary that threw his campaign off-message.
But with months still until the election, any number of issues and incidents could creep into the campaign narrative. The presidency, if nothing else, is about managing the matrix of unexpected crises that cross the Resolute Desk.
“On balance, I don't have any complaints. This is a good campaign,” said the outside Romney adviser. “But there is concern about lack of agility in message.”
In many ways, Romney as a candidate hearkens back to the statuesque, pocket passers in football. He’s good at delivering a crisp economic message downfield, though Romney can sometimes struggle as a freelancer, or when the pocket is collapsing.
Not all teams favor the pocket passer in contemporary football, which has shifted in favor of scrambling quarterbacks who are adept at freelancing.
Which do Republicans prefer? Do they want Romney, a proverbial political pocket passer?
“If the other side's biggest weakness is the secondary, you might,” said Black.