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Can Mitt Romney Return to ‘Referendum’ Message?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Three months ago, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney had a very clear message: President Barack Obama had failed to turn the economy around or create jobs and, therefore, didn’t deserve another term.

It was a succinct, uncomplicated message, based on easily accessible unemployment and job numbers, as well as on the public’s dissatisfaction with the president’s performance.

More recently, the Romney message morphed into one much more about competing visions for the future, about what kind of country this is and will be. He has embraced the budget put forward by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (R).

That change, which stemmed partly from the changing economic and political environment — including substantial job growth, a sinking unemployment rate, growing consumer confidence and a rising stock market — and partly from Romney’s need to appeal to conservatives during the Republican nominating process, puts the likely GOP nominee in a more difficult position heading into the general election.

Simply put, the “choice” argument is more difficult to make successfully than the “referendum” argument. A referendum, after all, is entirely about the president and his performance. It doesn’t invite a comparison. Underlying it is the implicit assumption that the alternative to Obama is acceptable and couldn’t do a worse job than he has.

But the “choice of visions” message doesn’t merely invite a comparison of the candidates, it requires one. It injects the Republican Party and its nominee into the voting equation. And that’s clearly fine with the White House, which surely would like the presidential election to be a popularity contest.

“This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class. I can’t remember a time when the choice between competing visions of our future has been so ambiguously clear,” Obama said in his April 3 speech at the Associated Press luncheon.

Conservatives invariably call for a “choice” election because they find the Obama vision so appalling that they assume everyone will agree with that assessment. (Ideologues of both the left and the right generally seem to assume that they will be clear winners in the “vision” and “values” debate.) Both former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) pushed for a “big” election this year.

In fact, Republicans — and Romney in particular — ought to be very careful about falling into the trap of making the 2012 elections a choice of grand visions.

First, while the most conservative of Republicans can’t seem to think of a thing (other than defense) that government should do, most voters have a decidedly more mixed view of government.

Yes, most voters seem to agree, government spends and taxes too much, is inefficient and interferes too much in privatdecisions, but those same voters also look to government for student loans, highway spending, Medicare, retirement benefits, clean air and clean water programs and innumerable other federal programs.

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