Romney has always faced a fundamental challenge. He needs to win voters who have traditionally supported Democratic candidates, but his deficient conservative credentials have forced him to toe the party line on virtually every issue. Since he forfeited his ability to distinguish himself from the mainstream of an unpopular party, the Obama’s campaign has systematically highlighted Romney’s stances issue-by-issue, from the DREAM Act to Planned Parenthood, to tax cuts for the wealthy. Each of these positions puts Romney at odds with at least a subset of the relatively moderate swing voters that he needs to sweep in order to win the election.
That’s part of why the Romney campaign has tended to shy away from engaging in policy specifics: There’s not much they can say to appeal to their target demographics without risking backlash from the GOP base. And for that same reason, the Boston’s relentless negative attacks on Obama haven’t tended to focus on policy, but instead on the powerful sense that the president hasn’t succeeded in turning the country around. Dissatisfaction with the status quo and the president’s performance might be the only characteristics that unify the voters Romney needs to secure the White House. Fortunately for him, those are powerful sentiments that give him a pathway to winning the election.
But the selection of Paul Ryan is, so far, making this strategy much more difficult. Not only does the Ryan plan tend to draw debate toward specifics, but many of those proposals are more conservative than the policies that the Obama campaign has been stressing over the summer. It’s highly unlikely that Romney will benefit from additional attention on reforming Medicare, cutting taxes for the wealthy, or slashing popular discretionary spending programs. And worse still, the Medicare component of the Ryan plan introduces a threat to Romney’s support among elderly voters, who are the backbone of Romney’s coalition and absolutely essential to his chances.
So the Romney campaign’s instinct to distance themselves from Ryan's position on Medicare is understandable. But even though that instinct is understandable, it's assured to fail them in this instance. By picking Ryan, the Romney campaign chose this fight and if they run from it, they will get run over—neither the media, nor the Democrats will allow Romney to avoid the issue. So Romney needs to stop running and start playing defense by reassuring voters that he wants to preserve Medicare and Social Security, while attacking Obamacare for reducing Medicare spending. (Since I drafted this paragraph, the Romney campaign has released an advertisement following this approach.)
But the only way for the Romney campaign to escape a death spiral of debate about the particulars of the Romney agenda is to successfully reframe the campaign around a broader message. That was potentially the biggest bonus that Ryan could have provided to Romney, but early on, any rebranding effort or new theme was overshadowed by attempts to dodge the Ryan plan’s position on Medicare. The RNC is Romney’s next best opportunity to pull this off, and it remains to be seen whether they will succeed, especially since the Democrats will get three days to return focus to the specifics. Romney stands more than a chance to win the election if he can build a broad and credible narrative and message about turning the country around, reducing the deficit, and taking on big problems. Put differently, he needs his own version of “hope and change.” But if the final few months of the campaign is spent discussing some combination of Romney’s time at Bain, Romney’s tax returns, Romney's tax policy, Romney’s Medicare policy, Romney’s immigration policy, and Romney’s contraceptive policy, he will probably lose.