One Imperative That Mitt Romney's Campaign Can't Fumble

To many people, the month of June means graduations, weddings, and the start of a desperately needed summer. To the Obama and Romney campaigns, however, it signals the month when the U.S. Supreme Court will issue its opinion on the National Health Care Act (Obamacare) before the end of the term.

Now is the quiet before the proverbial storm. When the Court releases the opinion — sometime between today and the 29th — all heck will break loose in the media.

The Court may provide the Obama campaign another huge opportunity to promote its apparent slogan for November: “It’s anything but the economy, stupid!”

Whether the Court refuses to uphold the law intact — by invalidating all or some key provisions — or renders an unconvincing split opinion laden with confusing concurrences and discordant dissents, the Obama campaign will pounce, making the Court itself an issue in the campaign. Both the President and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi have already laid the groundwork, should it become necessary.

The tactic will be consistent with Obama campaign strategy so far this spring, which has tried to control the national issue agenda and, thereby, the news cycle, by methodically trotting out issues to play to a lukewarm base and distract from the economy’s poor performance.

As these issues continue to percolate up over the next five months, the Romney campaign and its Republican surrogates need to step back, take a deep breath, and stay focused on the right macro strategy for their campaign.

This will require the discipline to avoid the temptation to get into knee-jerk debates on issues that Democrats will use to energize specific groups in November. It will also require the discipline to re-focus the public conversation back onto the weak economy and job creation. Republicans lost this discipline during the heat of their acrimonious primary battle, and the economy has often taken a back seat to other “targeted” issues throughout the spring.

In March, Democrats returned to an old favorite — birth control — to rally women and college students as the Obama Administration imposed a mandate on private employers to pay for contraception coverage. We were subjected to a discussion of the sex life of dull law student Sandra Fluke as Republicans fumbled the issue while looking angry and, at times, mean.

Democrats kept the ball rolling in April with the President’s “College Tour 2012” in half-filled field houses promoting a loan forgiveness program for its coalition’s flighty student component. In early May, on the heels of the badly handled resignation of openly gay Romney press aide Richard Grennell, the President came out in favor of gay marriage. This prompted the Newsweek magazine cover with a rainbow halo anointing the ‘first gay’ President, as well as a dubiously sourced story that Mitt Romney bullied a gay kid in school 45 years ago.

And by late May, women were back on the agenda. Democrats in Congress pushed an “equal pay” regime. Though steeped in government intrusion into small businesses, the bill’s details washed out in media coverage. Instead, those who voted against it were cast as not wanting women to receive equal pay. Republican surrogates did a poor job of communicating that this spin was absurd and explaining the anti-big-government and economic reasons their leaders opposed the bill.

In order to avoid another period of distraction from how to fix the ailing economy, the Romney campaign must be braced for the coming days that will likely see the Court become the coalition-building issue du jour. It will be a media feeding frenzy, far beyond what we’ve witnessed so far.

If the Romney camp and its surrogates stay disciplined and don’t get drawn into the weeds of debating the merits of individual members of the Court, however, the Obama strategy will appear tenuous for at least two reasons.

First, it is cynical and divisive — and therefore contradicts the high-flying rhetoric that got the President elected. The disappointing negativity will depress turnout from the “new” participants in the electoral system, as Obama strategist David Plouffe has described them, who carried the Obama effort in 2008.

Second, it really is all about the economy. And as May’s jobs numbers revealed: The economy isn’t improving.

The Romney pollsters know this — jobs and the economy perpetually lead their internal surveys of issues that are most important to likely voters. And the campaign believes — correctly — that its candidate is the right man for the job of fixing the economy. Again, though, the campaign hasn’t yet sold Romney’s economic bona fides well enough. Polls show the two candidates very close on the economy in voters’ minds.

Once the Court’s opinion is released, the Romney campaign must be prepared for the onslaught of spin. The campaign’s response will be critical for setting the tone leading into the GOP Convention in August. There’s no room for fumbling this one.