For Mitt Romney, the month of June has appeared to go swimmingly. Disappointing job numbers, and a few and indeed rare slips of the tongue by President Barack Obama have seemingly given the former Massachusetts governor an opening. Yet the polls have flatlined, indicating little if any movement in any direction.
Why? Perhaps Romney, who has been very articulate of late, has said nothing very original. Both he and the president have a talent of illustrating in their language the obvious. Blame games and hyperbole do much to firm up existing support, but not much in the way of rallying independent voters. However, Obama has a talent for spicing up his comments, although they are no less predictable and boring.
As in 2004, the lines appear hardened, urging a base-rallying effort trying to squeeze the last bit of juice out of the lemon. Of course it is June, and some would argue that Romney needs to be commended for uniting his Republican base as fast as he has. Indeed, no one talks about an enthusiasm gap, the GOP is quite ready to go to the bridge for Romney. However, his static conservative campaign is hostage to events - events that only the president can control.
Good economic news of any substantial importance can easily turn this election, as can any unforeseen event. Unlike Ronald Reagan in 1980, Romney does not have the instincts of a closer. He has had Obama on the run for a month, but he has created little distance between himself and the incumbent. Even the approval numbers that are low for Obama depending on the day do not necessarily conform to the matchup figures. The polls show that Romney is every bit as vulnerable as Obama. Given the disapprovals for the last Republican administration, Romney is sort of a double incumbent.
His inability to create a daunting vision has forced him into a reactive, tactical mode. If June was the first quarter of a presidential football game, Romney recovered to Obama turnovers and managed, at best, two field goals. Obama's supporters have created a messy game that in the end favors the man already in power. Jimmy Carter tried it on Reagan in 1980, a campaign that knew what he was about and lost. But if his opponent has been George H. W. Bush or Howard Baker, it just might have worked.
Moderates who try to articulate ideologies far more pronounced than they believe in are less than convincing. Anti-Obama sentiment fuels much of the boom for Romney as anti-George W. Bush sentiments propelled enthusiasm for John Kerry. His rhetoric is businesslike and straightforward, but Romney is no closer to defining himself than he was in April. What he does have going is a sound campaign team that has created a real chance of defeating Obama. It's not bad, but it's certainly not, given the rough month of June, capable of setting the pace.
In an odd way it is creating an opening for the president. Although he has been chastised for being as uninspiring as his opponent, he is quietly nailing down the youth vote and Hispanic sector. David Axelrod and David Plouffe are executing a Karl Rove gameplan in June, hoping for more satisfying circumstances in late summer. The Democrats and liberal/left independent groups are now safely in the freezer. This is a full two months ahead of anything Jimmy Carter could do given that he still fended off a challenge from Edward Kennedy.
The rope-a-dope strategy has forced Romney to reveal his goals early and even has drawn some blood. It clearly has not been close to a knockout. His approach is opportunistic playing off bad news and Obama missteps. But if the president gets lucky, Romney might be found without much in the way of ammunition. Then what has been a slogging fight might become a track meet, and that is a race Obama can win.