The Long Race Has Begun

And so it begins. We have a Republican nominee in Mitt Romney and a Democratic nominee in Barack Obama.

It is a marathon, not a sprint, but the pace is quickening. In five months we will have chosen a new president or doubled down on the current one.

Superficially both men have some things in common. Starting from the outside, they are both handsome, tall and fit. They care how they look, and how they look has had something to do with how well they’ve done. Both are academically accomplished, with three Harvard degrees between them. Each has spent much of his adult life a step apart from America’s big, messy, varied center, one as a political star and the other a star of business. Neither has ever been a loser, which is unfortunate: Losertude is a great teacher, an orienter in life; it tells you not everything you touch will turn out well. This is important information for a president. Both are highly verbal in the sense of being—well, verbal, of speaking words with great fluidity. When you ask them a question, a stream of words flows. In a way they remind me of what a court reporter once said about the testimony of William F. Buckley: “High syllabic content!”

They are different people with different personalities, temperaments and characters. The most consequential difference for the election’s purposes is that one has fully absorbed the general assumptions, attitudes and sympathies of the political left, and the other the general attitudes, assumptions and sympathies of the political right. That’s what should—should—make the next five months interesting, and the outcome important.

Some facts right now:

Republicans are starting to think they can win, and Democrats are starting to think they could lose. This didn’t use to be true.

There is much talk of the president’s brilliantly targeted high-tech campaign. By November we will know how much difference a brilliantly targeted, high-tech campaign makes. Is it a revolution in political outreach, or a geeky mirage?

Neither candidate has struck on a theme, though both seem to think they have. At the moment both candidates are generally understood as biographies: “I’m the successful businessman,” “I’m the breakthrough president.” This accounts for a certain frustration among voters: “I don’t want a biography, I want a plan.”

Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have risen to the top of the American political system in an intensely political era. And yet neither loves politics or appears to have a particularly oversized gift for it. This is a central and amazing fact of the national election.

Mr. Obama has become actively bad at politics. Here is an example of how bad. Anyone good at politics does not pick a fight with the Catholic Church during a presidential year. Really, you just don’t. Because there’s about 75 million Catholics in America, and the half of them who go to church will get mad. The other half won’t like it either.

If you’re good at politics, you quietly allow the church what it needs to survive, which actually is no more or less than what’s long been provided by the U.S. Constitution.

If you’re good at politics but ideologically mean, you string the church along throughout the election year, offering “temporary full waivers” or some such idiotic phrase—politicians love to make up idiotic phrases—on conscience, and then revoke all protections in 2013, after you’ve been re-elected, and have the fight then.

Only if you are really, really not good at politics do you alienate the bishops of a great faith in an election year.

A smaller example. If you’re good at politics, you don’t humiliate a friend and ally who popped off about your campaign strategy. You don’t send Cory Booker on a rhetorical perp walk and make him recant. You quietly accept his criticism, humbly note your disagreement, hold a grudge, and keep walking.

A more important example, and then we’ll move on. The president opened his campaign with a full-fledged assault on his opponent. This is a bad sign in an incumbent! An incumbent should begin his campaign with a full-fledged assertion of the excellence of his administration—the progress that has been made, the trouble that has been avoided, the promise that endures. You’ve got to be able to name these things. Then, once you’ve established the larger meaning of your administration—with wit and humor, and in a tone that assumes fair minded Americans will see it your way—you turn, in late summer, to a happy, spirited assault on the poor, confused, benighted and yet ultimately dangerous man running against you.

The president’s campaign is making him look small and scared.

Mr. Romney, too, has had his bad moments. Donald Trump this week is an example. Mr. Trump brings with him the freak-show aspects of the primaries. Mr. Romney has to kick away from that, start a new chapter, begin an appeal to the sane center. Does he think keeping Trump close gains him some kind of right-wing street cred? My goodness, who does he think lives on that street?

More important, when you’re good at politics you know what you have to do, if not immediately then soon. Mr. Romney has to give us a plan. He has to tell us his priorities. To lead is to prioritize, to choose: “We will take this path, at this speed, toward this end.” He hasn’t done this yet. He told me last week of some immediate intentions—repeal ObamaCare, and move boldly to unleash America’s energy resources—he called them “newly discovered and extraordinary.”

Fine. But afterward I realized these issues are immediately and personally associated with President Obama. They are not associated with the president I suspect Mr. Romney really has on his mind, George W. Bush.

Mr. Romney should be talking about the big things, taxing and spending, and offering a plan on both, a hierarchal declaration of needs. But taxes and spending are issues that are associated with Mr. Bush, and not happily. That, I suspect, is a reason Mr. Romney avoids addressing them at length or in a way that’s easily understood. He doesn’t want the Obama campaign to accuse him of being “just more Bush,” of peddling the same medicine that helped make us sick. That was Ronald Reagan’s 1984 charge against Walter Mondale, that all he offered was the empty, warmed-over liberalism of the past.

The Romney camp doesn’t want to be accused of warmed-over Bushism. So they shy away from clarity on central issues. But you can’t avoid central issues. If you try, your candidacy and message will robbed of vividness, made a blur.

Mr. Romney should face what didn’t work the past 12 years. Republicans took some wrong turns, and they know it. Centrists and independents know it, too. Candor here, delivered in a spirit of honesty, without animus, would seem not like a repudiation but a refreshment. And this would be deeply undercutting of Mr. Obama, who needs this race to be a fight between two parties, not a fight between a past that didn’t work and a future that can.

The Bush family will understand. They respect politics, and its practitioners.