DENVER, COLO. — Tomorrow night, the extent to which Mitt Romney's policy vulnerabilities are plucked at by the moderator and Barack Obama may depend on whether the media gets over its obsession with Romney's relatively unknowable inner essence. The two are, of course, related.
1. So what's he going to do? He has a five-point plan to revive the economy that he cannot pay for using any mathematical system available to homo sapiens. He has given conflicting signals on how much of ObamaCare he'll keep and how much he'll throw away. He has no answer about how he might deal with a Democratic Senate. Specifically, he will be pressed to describe which tax breaks he'll have to get rid of in order to move his plan toward revenue neutrality. Romney has avoided this question because he rightly wants to keep these options for use in negotiations with Congress if he becomes president, but to many ears, a "secret plan" is no plan at all.
2. Borrowing this observation from BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith: Romney has run on his record the way Mike Bloomberg would — if Bloomberg sought to de-emphasize everything he did at Bloomberg LLP and as mayor. That is, Romney has bracketed himself into a corner. He is a problem-solver without being able to brag about problems he solved.
3. Borrowing this observation from NBC News' Chuck Todd: There is nothing in Romney's economic plan that differs in any substantial way from the philosophy that George W. Bush and Republicans since Ronald Reagan have used to run the government. The same policies are being sold with virtually the same spin. Americans blame the economic collapse on those policies (and they blame the government for not being able to prevent the catastrophe, too). Why would Americans want to go back there?
4. Medicare: Romney's decision to choose Paul Ryan as his running mate will meet its toughest test in Denver. Can he satisfactorily explain to seniors (whose votes he now desperately needs more than ever) how the Romney-Ryan plan will leave their Medicare in better shape than Obama?
5. Education, the environment, and immigration: These aren't hot-button issues, but Romney has little to say about them (aside from a standard energy independence promise). He may be pressed for details, especially about how he will deal with the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants who live and work in America. His previous answers have been confusing and/or insufficient.
6. One reason why Barack Obama is doing surprisingly well among blue-collar women in the Midwest is that the auto bailout he endorsed became popular. Romney opposed it. Obama can at least point to something he did for the economy in manufacturing states; Romney's plans may have some substance to them, but he needs to find a much better way to talk about them.