In the classic 1968 film "Once Upon a Time in the West," a villainous Henry Fonda shoots one of his lackeys, in part for the sin of wearing both a belt and suspenders. How do you trust a man, muses Fonda, who "can't even trust his own pants?"
Mitt Romney is slipping in the polls because, when it comes to his own policies, he is once again wearing a belt, suspenders, and even some elasticized waistbands. The bold Romney who picked Paul Ryan as a catalyst to run on ideas has been ousted by the return of the careful Romney who wants this race to be about Barack Obama. And America is unwilling to trust a man who seems unwilling to trust his own agenda.
The re-emergence of the well-belted Romney began at the GOP convention, where he delivered a speech that had been pared away to nothing but a fleeting reference to his policies. It was on vivid display, too, in Mr. Romney's Sunday appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," in which he managed to use 30 minutes of prime time to talk mainly of flotsam, as well as (news flash!) how bad Mr. Obama had made the economy.
As for how he would create "more jobs" and "higher income," Mr. Romney wasn't saying. His references to his "tax policy" served mainly to explain what it doesn't do. He vowed to replace ObamaCare with his "own plan"—which is? He explained he had "big policy differences" with the president on Afghanistan. Those differences are "important." So important that he moved to the next question.
Credit for this fog goes to that inner circle of Romney advisers who never liked the Ryan pick and have reasserted their will over a candidate who is naturally cautious. In the la-la land where adviser Stuart Stevens presides, Mr. Romney wins by never saying a single thing, ever, that might rock a single boat, ever. Just keep the focus on Mr. Obama. After all, no president has ever won with an economy like this.
One problem: Mr. Obama is winning. The August unemployment numbers are horrid; the president increases his national lead. Labor-force participation hits a 31-year low; Mr. Obama moves up in swing states. Prices spike; the president takes Michigan out of contention. No doubt Part 39 of the Romney attack on Mr. Obama's welfare policies will propel the Republican to a blazing lead. Though, failing that, Mr. Romney might consider that the pure referendum strategy is a bust.
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