Kvetch A Sketch

Let’s be grouchy. The White House is ripe to be taken, and Republicans seem stalled, weirdly becalmed. Their great primary struggle has imparted no feeling of dynamism, of forward motion, of a clash that yields clarity. When you think of the debates the past six months, you see a line of seals barking, Ahrk ahrk!

Mitt Romney is most frustrating. He always keeps you from celebrating him. Every time you want to—he sweeps Illinois, he gives a good acceptance speech—he gives you reasons not to. He should take to hiding out after victory.

He wins Jeb Bush’s endorsement, he’s flying high, and he immediately follows it with a full-body pander to George W. Bush and the first Wall Street bailout, which Republicans on the ground, many Democrats and independents, too, view with increasing distaste. Then his press guy does Etch A Sketch.

That last comment was unfortunate in two ways. One is that it reminded a lot of people—well, me—of how then-Sen. Barack Obama, in 2008, was widely viewed as a blank slate, an empty canvas on which people painted their hopes and yearnings. He knew it; he admitted it was part of his mystique. So he was a kind of Etch A Sketch too, only he let the voters turn the knobs. The other is that it illustrated with a disheartening vividness the essential Romney problem, which has never gone away after all this time: that he’s making it up as he goes along, that he’ll be one thing today and another tomorrow.

Actually, the vibration he’s lately giving off is worse than that. He acts like a guy who can be captured. The world is full of mischief, full of groups, tongs clubs and cabals, and this one says you have to back a certain fiscal plan, that one an environmental approach, and this one says you’ve got to go to war. And they are almost never thinking of America Overall, they are always thinking of their issue, their thing, and telling themselves—and you—that doing it their way will be better for America, overall. And if they think you have a soft, chewy center, every day of your presidency will be a bloody struggle to capture the Mitt.

Presidents have to have a sophisticated sense of others’ agendas, and know the implications of those agendas. They have to be able to imagine overall impact.

Does Mr. Romney have such sophistication? Another way of asking is to note a small but telling aspect of his public speaking style. There is something strangely uninflected there. He says very different things in the same tone. “Pass the mustard!” “This means war!” “Flowers are pretty!” “Don’t tread on me!” It’s all the same tone, the same level of import and engagement. Which it would be if you’re sort of . . . well, if you see issues as entities to deploy as opposed to think about and weigh.

Are we too grouchy? Mr. Romney will, after all, be the Republican nominee. That at least became clear this week. How about a little possibly helpful advice?

Hmmm. Some short term advice to all the candidates:

Get cable TV out of your head. All the campaigns are obsessed with and driven crazy by what the cable universe is saying. Ignore it. What you are having is a conversation with America. You are not having a conversation with MSNBC. You are not negotiating a relationship with the anchors of Fox News.

Their constant clamor gives you a distorted sense of reality. Their critiques leave you too high or low. You know who let cable in his head? President Obama, in the first years of his presidency. It’s in Jodi Kantor’s book. Do you need more proof of how cable can leave you confused, lost and ineffective?

Stop talking about political process. Every reporter in America wants to reveal the shallowness of your concerns. Why do you help them? Why do you answer their dreary, droning questions about what demographic you appeal to most, what part of the country you’ll do best in, how much money you’re raising, how you’ll win over Hispanics? They ask you these questions because they want you to be what they are: people for whom politics is all about manipulation. You are running for president. You’re supposed to talk about things that matter and address big questions.

Every Republican candidate has been answering these questions for a year now. Stop it. Learn to say, “I have a well-paid idiot who answers some of those questions for me. Would you like to discuss welfare policy?” After the first 10 times it will work.

For Mr. Romney in particular:

Suit up and get serious. Now that everyone knows you’ll be the nominee, get off the goofball express. Cheesy grits, jeans, singing, being compulsively pleasant, calling your opponents lightweights—enough.

Use the next few months to get back to basics. Why do you want to be president again? Is the answer, “Because I’m a great fellow and it’s the top job”? Dig down deep for a better reason!

Here’s something Americans intuit about motivations in presidential politics. When a candidate is on a mission to rescue the country, they can tell. When it’s about the nation and not him, they can tell. When he has a general philosophy of government and politics, they will listen, and give a fair hearing.

But when a candidate says, not blatantly but between the lines, “I want to be president because I’m an extraordinary and superior human and want you to see me that way too,” well, that sort of subliminally gives a lot of people the creeps. They will see you as ego-driven, not purpose-driven. They may elect you anyway, but this year especially they won’t.

Mr. Romney seems stuck in “I am extraordinary.” But Mr. Obama does, too. He’s proof that it’s not enough.

It is not fatal that Mr. Romney has been tagged as Etch A Sketchy. Almost all of 2012 will come down to plans and policy, to which path seems likely to get us out of the muck. The American people are in a postheroic presidential period. They just want to hire somebody to come in and fix some essential problems.

Mr. Romney should feel optimistic.

If the issue is our national economic life, the GOP will very likely win. If the subset of that issue is freedom and personal liberty, the GOP will win with meaning. The Obama campaign knows this. That’s why they’ll do anything to throw Republicans off those subjects. Two weeks ago it was contraception, next week it will be another social question. They used to scorn Republicans for using wedge issues, but now their entire strategy is a tribute to the political hacks they hated. And if any Republicans were sad that contraception actually came up as the subject of public debate, they were not as sad as Democratic strategists, who were hoping to save it for September.

If the economy significantly rebounds between now and November, will that leave Mr. Romney without an issue? No. First of all, magic is not about to occur. But more important, if unemployment plummeted to 6%, the American people would think, “Nothing personal, but this didn’t happen because of Obama, it happened in spite of him.”

No one thinks he’s got a good hand on the economy. No one, not even his supporters.