Since everyone is still wisely seeking lessons from the 2012 election, I have a simple one to offer: criticism must be married to alternatives. I don’t just mean in the grand “you must have a detailed plan” sense. I mean every single time a presidential candidate speaks before a national audience.
The Democrats tend to be very good at this, in part because it’s very easy to propose spending other people’s money as the “alternative” to any critique. This is the inherent rhetorical advantage of the statist. Every problem identified with any area of national life can be naturally followed with “and here is how I want the government to fix it.”
One of the memorable moments during the 2008 campaign came during one of the debates, when then-candidate Barack Obama was asked how he would reduce government spending to address the deficit (which he was, amusingly, promising to cut in half at the time.) His response quickly veered into a laundry list of new government programs that would cost billions of dollars. In other words, even the “answer” to the problem of government spending too much money involves spending more money.
The statist aggressively portrays any critique without an expensive government solution as the absence of a plan. This is much easier to do when belief in the power of freedom is kept general and vague: “I trust free Americans to handle this issue on their own” rather than “I will eliminate this oppressive regulation and put this much money back in the hands of the people, who have the skill and wisdom to prevail over that.”
The example of doing this badly that really sticks from the 2012 campaign is the auto bailout issue. This was, rather preposterously, cast as a huge positive for President Obama – it might actually have been one of the more decisive issues in certain battleground states – even though Mitt Romney (a) would not in any way have “reversed” the bailout, and (b) would have followed essentially the same strategy, but handled it much better. If you’re skeptical of the entire auto bailout concept and think it reflects badly on both Obama and Romney, then fair enough, but the degree to which it was lathed and sanded into a club for Obama is wildly disproportionate to the actual difference in policy between him and Romney. A great deal of this difference boiled down to the title of an op-ed Romney wrote for the New York Times in 2009, which become more significant than what the piece actually said.
The crucial error for Romney when talking about the GM bailout in a critical sense was not hammering the specific things Obama did wrong, and emphasizing that under Romney’s plan those mistakes would not have been made. In other words, he should never have failed to mention the betrayed stockholders, union payoffs, and the utterly screwed Delphi non-union retirees, every single time the issue was raised. It’s not that he never discussed these things – it’s a matter of repetition and emphasis.
Another example is Romney’s critique of Obama’s Middle East “apology tour,” which “fact checkers” laughably insisted was nothing of the kind simply because Obama never used the exact words “I apologize for the entire history of the United States.” Romney should have repeated exactly what Obama did say (and it most certainly was an extended apologetic for American policy, delivered as a snide attack on George Bush.) And he should have been relentlessly clear about stating, verbatim, what he would have said differently.
This is also true of the Obama Administration’s free-speech compromise following the “video riots.” It’s not enough to zing the President for being tepid about standing up for American values against the demands of Islamic law. Romney needed to show us, repeatedly, what a robust American leader would have said instead. Don’t just say it’s wrong to compromise free speech; show us how a patriot eagerly and forcefully defends it.
This got Romney in a lot of trouble on the morning of September 12, when his midnight denunciation of the outrageous “sorry freedom of speech bothers you, we think it sucks too” response from the Cairo embassy was twisted into a “gaffe” that Romney had to spend much of the day explaining. Romney did not repeat exactly what embassy said, and he didn’t tell us what it should have said instead, so when the press memory-holed the original comment, Romney was made to look churlish and out-of-line.
Never, ever fail to accompany criticism with both specifics and alternatives. No conservative can ever, to the smallest detail, assume that “everybody knows” something; we are not the editors of conventional wisdom. And do any of us still need to learn that liberty and responsibility are tougher sells than dependency? As the salesman’s advice goes: Always be closing.