THE last time the United States held a presidential election amid the mass unemployment left in a financial crisis’s wake, the challenger offered only a partial glimpse of what he would actually do in office. Mostly, he played the opportunist, attacking the incumbent party for spending too much and helping too little, for being indifferent to human suffering and for failing to balance the budget, for overtaxing and undertaxing and everywhere in between. He claimed to be offering a bold contrast of visions, but mostly he just relied on the unemployment rate to do his work for him.
That challenger was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His 1932 convention speech — the first ever delivered by a nominee in person — was more detailed than the parade of generalities Mitt Romney offered last Thursday. But mostly it was a sprawl of unpersuasive economic analysis and highly convenient criticisms of the hapless Herbert Hoover. Hearing it or reading it, you would have known that F.D.R. intended to govern as some sort of liberal, as you would know from Romney’s speech that he intends to govern as a conservative. But you would be able to anticipate only the broadest outlines of the policy experimentation that ultimately defined the New Deal.
Romney’s version of Roosevelt’s campaign strategy is far less certain to succeed. Roosevelt was running with unemployment in the mid-20s; Romney is running with 8 percent. Hoover had actually presided over the financial crisis; Barack Obama merely inherited it — and from a Republican president, at that. F.D.R. cruised to a landslide; Romney’s play-it-safe strategy seems designed to win 51 percent at most.
But if Romney does win, his studied vagueness and generic Republican rhetoric may leave him with much more room to maneuver in office than either the left or right currently expects.
On the left, it’s an article of faith that the Republican nominee is effectively a hostage to the most ideological elements in his party, and that he’ll be forced to march in lock step with them even if his own instincts suggest a different path.
Among conservatives, the choice of Paul Ryan persuaded many Romney doubters that the candidate has definitively embraced the Congressional Republican agenda as his own.
Both assumptions may be wrong. Of course a President Romney would have to operate within the broad framework of conservatism. But the left probably understates how much power he would have to shape and even redefine that framework, and how invested his fellow Republican officeholders (as opposed to movement activists) would be in making his first term a success.
The right, meanwhile, may be misreading the import of the Ryan pick. It’s no doubt a sign that Romney intends to pursue at least some of Ryan’s entitlement reform proposals once in office. But it’s also a move that brings a potential critic and rival inside the administration’s camp, transforming a spokesman for conservatism into a salesman for the Romney White House’s agenda — whether that agenda fits movement orthodoxy or not.
None of this is to say that Romney has a detailed “secret plan,” as Bloomberg View’s Josh Barro has provocatively suggested, to bail out underwater homeowners or play the right-wing Keynesian on deficits or raise taxes in some sort of bipartisan grand bargain.
Rather, it’s more likely that the Republican nominee is behaving like an executive being considered for a C.E.O. job at a high-profile but mismanaged company. He’s trying to tell his job interviewers (both conservative and independent) roughly what they want to hear, while leaving enough flexibility to be able to do things his way once he sees what’s actually under the company’s hood.
If there was a persistent and persuasive theme in his convention address, and in Ann Romney’s as well, it didn’t have anything to do with deficits or taxes or Medicare reform or foreign policy. It was the promise of hard work — work on behalf of “you and your family,” work in pursuit of “jobs, lots of jobs,” work that would “solve the problems that others say can’t be solved” and “fix what others say is beyond repair.”
One can hear in this rhetoric a kind of right-of-center rhyme to Roosevelt’s campaign promise of “bold, persistent experimentation,” his exhortation to “above all, try something,” without necessarily specifying what that something might be.
This parallel is not necessarily an advertisement for Romney. Liberal nostalgia notwithstanding, Roosevelt flailed as often as he flourished, and boldness and experimentation untempered by principle and modesty have been responsible for many more recent presidential failures as well.
But if you’re looking for a best-case scenario for a Romney presidency, you have to hope that his Mr. Fix-It impulses will work out for the best — and that rather than being a model of moderation or a paragon of purity, he’ll be a president who tries, and tries, and ultimately gets things right.