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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — Could it be that Mitt Romney is correct from a strategic point of view to tell us little about what he’d do as president?

There are, of course, excellent civic reasons for a candidate to say where he or she would lead the country. But the debate raging right now in Republican circles is about politics, not civics. A slew of conservatives, including the editors of The Wall Street Journal’s canonical editorial page, are telling Romney that his “insular staff and strategy … are slowly squandering an historic opportunity.” In The Weekly Standard, William Kristol fumed: “Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he’s running?”

There are grounds for such skepticism. This week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll found the race dead even, but gave President Obama a 12-point advantage among registered voters on the matter of which candidate has a clearer plan for dealing with the economy. After several months of disappointing jobs numbers, Romney is behind Obama in other national surveys, and tends to lag in the swing states.

Far be it from me to get in the way of internecine Republican bickering, but Romney’s GOP critics are wrong in seeing his specifics-lite approach as his core problem. His difficulties lie elsewhere.

A defense of Romney’s minimalism starts with the matter of timing. The best rationale I’ve heard for the current Romney strategy came from former Rep. Vin Weber, a Romney adviser who noted in an interview that the very first question voters have to answer in a re-election race is whether there is “a compelling reason to remove the incumbent from office.”