They say that time flies when you're having fun. If that's true, I must've been having a blast, because the 2012 election has passed me by like a freight train. As I write this, we are just thirty-seven days from election day.
Depending on where you stand on the issues, this is either good or bad news. If you are backing Obama, he is leading, and has very little time to mess it up. If you are backing Romney, he has just over a month to turn a powerful tide.
The first presidential debate is, therefore, incredibly important. Obama could bomb and blow his lead; Romney could further alienate himself from the electorate. We'll know come Wednesday night. The debate, which takes place at the University of Colorado in Denver, starts at 9 p.m. EST on Wednesday, and will last until 10:30 p.m. The candidates will address primarily issues of domestic policy.
Because this election appears to be Obama's to lose, it's prudent to focus on Romney; namely, it's prudent to focus on what he needs to do to give himself a bump and salvage his sinking campaign. As I see it, there are at least five things he needs to do to come out on top.
1. Romney needs to worry about the 47%.
The now-infamous 47%gaffe is costing Romney dearly. The American Prospect relates that the bump Obama has been enjoying "can’t be responsible for the sudden shifts we’ve seen in Florida and other states. For now, I think the best answer is Romney and his remarks on the'"47 percent.'"
Writing for Mother Jones magazine, Andy Kroll remarks "Memo to Mitt Romney: The majority of Americans do not agree with you that the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes are Obama-voting government mooches who believe they're "victims" and won't take responsibility for their own lives."
Romney needs to say something that will either clarify what he meant (assuming he misspoke), provide an argument to back up his statement, or somehow endear himself to the people he offended. Whichever route he chooses, he needs to find a way to address this issue.
2. Romney needs to win over women voters.
A recent YWCA poll found Democratic women are more enthusiastic about Obama than Republican women are about Romney. According to the poll, "Democratic women show more intensity for their candidate than Republican women – 75% of Democrats support Obama strongly, compared to 58% of Republicans who support Romney strongly.”
Romney needs to find a way to lure in both independents and to increase enthusiasm among Republicans. The left has effectively advanced much rhetoric about a so-called conservative "war on women". Romney needs to convince women that he is a part of the solution, not the problem.
3. Romney needs to show us who he is.
We've had four years to get to know Obama. Love him or hate him, he has an identity.
Romney, on the other hand, mostly disappeared after his last run at the presidency. Now, even conservatives complain about not knowing him. As Ben Stein writes "Now, we have a difficult struggle. The media, except for Fox News, is desperately against Mr. Romney. They love and worship Mr. Obama, the cool mixed-race kid from Hawaii who has skate-boarded and surfed his way into our bland hearts. But we also have a huge problem of our own making: we do not know who Mitt Romney is. Even to me, who is a political animal, Mr. Romney is a mystery man. Is he 'the best, most honest governor Massachusetts has ever had' but a distinct liberal? Or is he now a conservative? What does he stand for? And what does it mean that he is a Mormon?"
Evangelicals and Catholics need to see Romney's religious side in order to find some sort of common ground with him. The non-religious need to see some sort of biography they can understand and reference.
4. Romney needs to sell his health care plan.
Everyone is worried about the future of health care, and nobody appears to be able to agree on the solution. One weak spot is that a number of conservative Christians of all denominations and branches are extremely uncomfortable with Obamacare and see it as a threat to religious freedom.
Moreover, bioethicists such as Wesley J. Smith have argued that Obamacare will lead to rationing and death panels. These are very real fears held by the populace. I don't care how many free medical services you promise — if you can validate these kinds of fears, you can turn people against Obama's health care plan.
If Romney can effectively critique Obamacare and show that it is an actual threat to constitutional rights, he will almost certainly raise doubt in the minds of even the most ardent supporters.
5. Romney needs to lead us out of tribalism.
One of the more disturbing features of this election cycle is how deeply divided America is. But it's more than that. We aren't just divided — there is a palpable dislike and animosity growing between those who have different worldviews. We aren't having civil disagreements; we are demonizing each other and drawing unnecessary lines in the sand.
According to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, this is because human organize themselves into different tribes and, in a sense, wage war against other tribes.
"Technology and changing residential patterns have allowed each of us to isolate ourselves within cocoons of likeminded individuals," says Haidt.
"Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects."
The simple fact is that the disagreements we have over everything from gay marriage and euthanasia to the size of government and federalism stem from moral foundations. In other words, these disagreements stem from competing worldviews. Romney needs to critique Obama's basic worldview assumptions, and advance his own powerfully. But he also needs to show that he is interested in understanding the narrative and worldview of those he disagrees with. He must show that he is interested not only in critiquing, but in conversing. Romney needs to show himself a figurehead for a more civil political discourse and lead a movement to squash vitriol. If he can do that, he will show himself a powerful leader.
Romney will be lucky if he can accomplish one or two of the goals I have mentioned. Come Thursday morning, we'll see if his luck holds out.