Elections 2012: Reinventing The Candidate May Be Republicans' Last Hope

In the 1972 classic film, The Candidate, Robert Redford’s character is told he is free to say anything he wants during the coming campaign. That promise becomes a contract, two words written on the inside of a matchbook, that simply read, “You lose.”

Forty years later the American political process has changed a great deal. Candidates must raise ginormous sums of cash and make sure that everything that is said fits into the context of a 24-hour news cycle where talk show hosts are ready to jump on any proposal and stomp the idea as well as the candidate into the ground.

So it’s natural for a candidate to not say anything.

Mitt Romney’s premise has been that it’s much safer to whip up voters with a campaign based on attacking the other guy. Or to promise a tax cut and then find new federal revenue by giving up loopholes that will not be named. Romney’s even run away from his boldest choice: Picking House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan as his running mate. And then saying that Ryan’s budget plan, one that is either visionary or radical, depending on your point of view, isn’t exactly the same as his plan. But what’s the difference? Say nothing.

But that strategy has a price. Since the Republican and Democratic conventions it’s as if voters have scribbled two words on the inside of a matchbook a new contract.

“If The Election Were Held Today Barack Obama Would Win,” says the headline in the influential conservative blog, RedState. “... Mitt Romney is not winning this election. At least Mitt Romney is not winning the election right now,” writes RedState’s Erick Erickson. “Conservatives are obsessing over every poll, the turn out models used, and the media bias that is on full display. Yes, some of the polling models seem screwy, though we all forget the pollsters apply a secret sauce known only to them on top. Yes, reporters are fully beclowning themselves to get their god-king re-elected. But while we may be focused there, the fact is the Romney campaign isn’t functioning well. Lucky for you and me the election is not today. But something needs to happen in Boston and I am less and less hopeful anything will happen.”

The idea that Romney is blowing this election is becoming a conservative theme. So much so that several voices, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh and George Will, have all basically said that if Romney loses, the Republican party should shut down and start all over. With new leaders.

Many Republicans are hoping that this is the week that Romney and his team reinvent their campaign. One adviser, Ed Gillespie, told The New York Timesthat beginning this week. Team Romney would be “very future oriented” an explain “what a vote for Romney would result in.”

For conservatives that shift can’t come soon enough.

“There is time for Mitt Romney to close the deal,” writes Erickson. “But he can’t close the deal with a schizophrenic campaign message. If he’s afraid of being more unliked than he already is, he might as well let Paul Ryan be the lead. Because the status quo for Team Romney is not working. That is just a fact and we might as well accept it instead of screaming at everything else trying not to make eye contact with that fact.”

Of course candidate Romney will never be the kind of person who says anything he wants. It’s not in his nature. But he wants to say enough, just enough, to win. He doesn’t want the Ryan budget – or any other specific agenda item – to become a contract inside of a matchbook.

Romney might even be a fan of the cynical conclusion of The Candidate. Perhaps he thinks that is the way to win because in the movie version of politics, Robert Redford’s character only gains traction when he stops being completely honest and becomes more of the politician. The less he says the better. So when Redford's character finally wins, he asks his campaign manager, “what do we do now?”

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.