Romney's 'New' Campaign Strategy Isn't Actually New

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The Republican candidate hopes to convince voters he's turning the page -- by promising to keep doing exactly what he's been doing so far.

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It is a brave new day for Mitt Romney. His campaign is laying out a bold new strategy, one in which it will make a dramatic new turn toward ... something!

The something will not actually be new, but it will feel new to lots of people, Romney campaign adviser Ed Gillespie told reporters Monday morning. But that's the problem with the current, much-hyped Romney campaign strategy reboot: It's not a new strategy at all.

"This is reinforcing," Gillespie said on the Monday conference call, adding, "We're not rolling out new policies so much as making people understand when we say things, here's how we're going to get them done. Here are the specifics. We think there's a demand out there for that."

The new message comes in the wake of an explosive, juicy Politico story Sunday night on the disorganization and finger-pointing within the Romney campaign. Numerous insiders say Romney's dashing, dilettantish chief strategist Stuart Stevens is in charge of too many aspects of the campaign but adequately focused on none of them, contributing to such missteps as a convention speech that didn't mention Afghanistan; Clint Eastwood's disastrous star turn; and last week's hasty tumble into the foreign-policy arena.

To calm the rising fear among Republicans that Romney is losing and his campaign does not know what it is doing, the campaign is now rushing to promote the idea of a new direction. But just what that new direction would consist of was far from clear, as conservative blogger Ed Morrissey noted. Politico had the campaign broadening its focus to encompass more topics than a simple economic message; Buzzfeed had Romney looking to gin up Republican base enthusiasm with conservative red meat; and the Washington Post and New York Times had Romney putting new emphasis on the five points of his economic plan. The only thing these reports had in common was Romney campaign officials making assurances that things were about to change. But their inability to agree on the shape of the change seemed, if anything, to bolster the impression of disarray behind the scenes.

On Monday's conference call, Gillespie, the veteran Washington hand and former Republican National Committee chairman, said the new tack would consist of a renewed emphasis on specifics, but the specifics themselves would be the same as they were before.

"Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan this week will be making a strong push to highlight some of the specific aspects" of their policy proposals, Gillespie said. "This push reflects our view that, after a successful convention where voters learned a lot about Mitt Romney as a person, they're eager to hear more about his policies to turn the economy around and create 12 million jobs."

In shifting focus, however, the campaign is in no way negating or disowning its former strategy; the new emphasis is "more of a natural progression" than a break with precedent, Gillespie said. Asked to explain new polling showing Obama leading Romney on such issues as taxes and the deficit, Gillespie passed the phone to pollster Neil Newhouse. "I'm not sure that voters really understand the difference between the plans that Romney has and Obama has," Newhouse said. "That's one thing that we're committed to try to do going forward is defining the differences."

What, then, is the new strategy? It's to reemphasize the policy proposals that Romney is already campaigning on, apparently. Gillespie's argument is that voters, having been convinced that Obama's not cutting it and Romney is a decent enough guy, now are ready to hear what exactly Romney has planned. Once he's painted a picture of the future to their satisfaction, they'll be ready to go and vote for him. For example, "when we say we're going to be energy independent by 2020, it's because we're going to approve the Keystone pipeline," Gillespie said. Romney isn't just making empty promises -- he's going to make clear that he has in mind the concrete steps to fulfill them.

The bit about Keystone sounded familiar. It was the first thing Romney mentioned in the television ad that was supposedly his kick-off ad of the general election campaign. "What would a Romney presidency be like?" that ad asked. "Day one, President Romney immediately approves the Keystone pipeline, creating thousands of jobs that Obama blocked." (Oddly, the ad has been taken down from the Romney campaign's YouTube page.) It was released in May.

Well, OK, you say, the promises aren't new, but perhaps they are going to be newly foregrounded and freshly framed around that aforementioned five-point economic plan, together with the concrete prospect of 12 million new jobs.

But at a Romney campaign event in Northern Virginia last week, the centerpiece of his 18-minute speech was ... his five-point plan to turn the economy around and create 12 million new jobs. He made sure to put special emphasis on how he would implement each plank and how it would lead to more jobs:

  1. Achieve North American energy independence within eight years. "Let me tell you how I would do that, by the way": increasing permitting and licensing on federal lands; opening the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to drilling; allowing drilling off the coast of Virginia; greenlighting the Keystone Pipeline. "That's going to create millions of jobs, not just in the energy sector but also in manufacturing and other places that use energy."
  2. Make trade work for America by opening markets to new goods while cracking down on China's currency manipulation and intellectual property theft.
  3. Improve education: getting people the job skills they need while making schools competitive in the world, putting kids, teachers and parents first and the unions behind.
  4. Balance the budget by cutting spending. "We're not going to have entrepreneurs go out and start a small business or big businesses go out and build new factories if they think we're on the road to Greece. This spending more than we take in is killing jobs."
  5. Champion small businesses by cutting taxes and streamlining regulations. "And we've got to take off that cloud that's scaring small businesses from hiring. We've got to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that works to get the cost of health care down."

Finishing this list, Romney concluded: "If we do those five things, we're going to create about 12 million jobs in the next four years." That was last Thursday. At his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Monday in Los Angeles, his first address of the Bold New Campaign, Romney recited the list largely unchanged.

At the same time, Romney does not appear prepared to fill in the most obvious gaps in his policy platform. He insists that his tax and spending proposals will balance the budget without raising taxes, but he won't say which tax loopholes he would close to do so; there's no indication that's going to change. In his speech Monday, he described a broken immigration system and criticized Obama for failing to fix it. But he did not say how he would resolve the situation of illegal immigrants currently in the U.S., promising only to "work with Republicans and Democrats to permanently fix our immigration system." This is exactly what he did last time he spoke about immigration to a Hispanic audience.

In sum, then, Romney's new campaign strategy is to put new emphasis on the proposals that he was already emphasizing, while declining to fill in new details of the proposals he has kept strategically vague. It doesn't sound like much of a turnaround. But then, Romney's camp does not actually admit that a turnaround is needed.

"This is like being the manager of the Red Sox -- everybody in the world knows how to do your job better than you do," one top Romney adviser told me. "You've just got to keep going. ... I see a race that's very close against a very individually popular president, within the margin of error in most places where it matters. Going into the last 50 days, that's not a bad place to be."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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