Bill Kristol laments that Romney isn’t Bill Clinton:
The Romney campaign will answer that they’re imitating Bill Clinton in 1992, who famously focused on “the economy, stupid.” But Bill Clinton was a full spectrum presidential candidate, with detailed policy proposals on welfare reform, health care, education, and foreign policy.
That last part is not entirely true. Yes, Clinton ran on a more hawkish foreign policy platform than the previous four Democratic nominees, but how many detailed policy proposals did he really have? Clinton made some opportunistic debate criticisms of Bush’s response to Tiananmen Square and his dealings with Hussein before the invasion of Kuwait, but on the whole his criticisms of Bush’s foreign policy record were minimal. When Clinton came out in favor of military strikes on Serb targets in Bosnia, he swiftly came under attack from the Bush campaign for his “reckless” proposal. Compared to the long list of complaints Romney has made against Obama, Clinton didn’t say that much on foreign policy during the 1992 campaign. Clinton’s acceptance speech barely mentioned foreign policy. His campaign understood that this was one of Bush’s strengths, and the campaign correctly recognized that most voters were much more concerned with domestic affairs.
Clinton needed to present himself as a plausible steward of national security, and that is what he was able to do during the campaign. That often involved not reflexively rejecting whatever it was that Bush had done. Bush was widely regarded as competent in this area, and nothing Clinton said or proposed was going to change that. Unlike Romney, Clinton understood that his party was perceived as being at a disadvantage on these issues, and he campaigned accordingly. Romney has campaigned as if Republicans still “own” foreign policy and national security. They don’t, and Romney hasn’t adjusted to that reality at all. Compared to Clinton’s first campaign, Romney continues to talk about foreign policy much more frequently, which suggests that he isn’t really following Clinton’s example.
Regardless, Kristol is mostly wrong in his larger complaint against Romney. The emerging conventional wisdom that Romney is too “vague” on policy is somewhat misleading. The Romney campaign has some relatively detailed proposals on a number of subjects, but the real complaint about his “vagueness” is that Romney isn’t talking about them when he is campaigning.Many people expect Romney to behave like the technocratic wonk that he used to be, the person who once said that he wanted to get into the weeds of policy detail because “the weeds are important,” but Romney hasn’t been that person in public for a very long time. Romney cared about “the weeds” in 2007-08, and then he lost in humiliating, costly fashion. That’s why he doesn’t show much interest in “the weeds” this time around.
According to the emerging conventional wisdom, Romney’s political fortunes would improve if he would only be more specific about what he would do. That seems incorrect. Romney isn’t going to win the election on the strength of his “detailed policy proposals,” and we all understand that. Dukakis and Kerry weren’t lacking for policy proposals, and they didn’t lose because their proposals were considered insufficiently specific.
Update: Jonathan Bernstein discusses Romney’s lack of specifics:
Exactly no one is going to vote against Romney because he declines to advocate specific policies, but there’s always the risk that embracing one set of policy choices could alienate voters who otherwise might just want to throw the bums out.