The Past Is History

Candidates, we know what you've done. Now tell us what you're going to do

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Illustration by Hieronymus for TIME; Romney: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

Biography no longer seems to matter much in American politics. There was a time when a candidate's story was everything and legions of hickory-tough old generals, backwoods rail splitters and celebrated Rough Riders soared into the White House on the wings of their modest roots and past accomplishments. But in the frenetic buzzing of today's politics, the personal story has become easy prey to a million tiny bites. Mitt Romney would be wise to consider this as he turns to face the general election.

To date, Romney's campaign has been all biography, all the time. To Americans worried about our limping economy, Team Romney has hammered home the idea that he comes not from politics but from the private sector. He has the business skills to create jobs, his team proclaims. This makes sense on the surface, since the economy is weak and Romney has had--by any fair examination--a very successful career in private equity. But the surface simplicity of this strategy is why it is, in fact, weak.

In politics today, context is usually the first casualty. A single 30-second television ad with millions of dollars in rating points behind it can completely redefine a decades-long career. Rick Santorum has been a strong social conservative throughout his long political life. But a single vote to support federal funding of contraception did him great damage among some social conservatives after Romney's relentless TV ads made that one vote famous.

Now it's Romney's turn. With the Republican primary finally over, battleship Obama is swinging its turrets toward Romney. Television time has been bought, and the ads are coming. They won't be kind or fair. The Obama attack ads will pound Romney for doing what every successful business leader from Steve Jobs to Warren Buffett has done: shut down factories that aren't making it to invest capital in more-productive options with a better chance to grow and prosper and employ more people. By the President's campaign-ad logic, of course, the only good businessman is one who never closed anything or fired anyone. In the real world of actual economic accomplishment, such a creature does not exist.

But we are not talking about the real world; we're talking about political ads. Their reality is based solely on the perception they create. The Obama spots are certain to feature workers talking about losing their jobs, and they will undercut--perhaps even erase--Romney's biography as a job creator. Mitt will have the charts and graphs and facts and figures. The Obama ads will have the sad stories, and they will be effective.

If Romney bets only on biography as his economic message, this is going to be a short race. Presidential elections always tilt forward, not backward. More than a bio, Romney needs a set of bumper-sticker-clear ideas about how he will create jobs. Those proposals must both catch the imagination of the public and win dinner-table arguments across the U.S. by being smart, fresh and worth a try. Santorum had the right idea during one of the few good days of his campaign, when he proposed eliminating taxes for U.S. manufacturers. Some economists might have sniffed in disdain, but it was exactly the kind of living-room-sensible proposal that can win general elections.

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