The trick is to say that you have a plan. If you say it often enough, your opponent will come to fear that you really do have a plan.
A collection of political concepts, informed by ideology, will coalesce in due course, and you'll begin to believe that there is a plan. Just add a sprig of parsley after the election, and it will be ready to serve.
Richard Nixon told the electorate that he had a plan for ending the Vietnam War. He didn't have one, but it was enough to help carry him into the White House.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has studied the "plan" playbook. He used his mythical plans to out-gun President Obama in their first debate.
Romney claims to have a plan for everything. He carried the day with frequent references to his plans, without fleshing out one of them. Talk about faith-based; just believe in Romney's plan, and it will come to pass.
Obama, in a performance that left his supporters ready to hit their heads on hard objects, let Romney build a cotton-candy mountain of sweet conjecture with hardly a challenge. Who advised Obama? Not only did Obama keep his powder dry for the entire engagement, he apparently didn't even bring it with him. He offered a muddled defense and no assault.
No shot was fired toward Romney's gaping vulnerabilities. One glancing round, that looked as if it might be the opening of a barrage, was when Obama told Romney that he'd have difficulty reaching out to the Democrats if he destroyed Obamacare as his first act of business. But the moment passed; the advantage was not driven home.
As so often with Obama, he failed to trumpet what his administration has accomplished: steadying the financial ship, saving the automobile industry, passing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), killing Osama bin Laden, and beginning a course toward rationalizing military expenditures.
These aren't small things; they are things that history may judge Obama very favorably for. But the president let Romney, ably assisted by the weak moderating of Jim Lehrer, characterize them as failure.
If this was the debate on which it all hinges, as many have suggested, then Obama's performance is tantamount to capitulation, again assisted by Lehrer's inability to restrain Romney's volubility bordering on mannerlessness.
Which raises a question that has hung about Obama throughout his presidency: Who is the essential Obama? The president often seems like a guest at his own party. Confidence abounds when he's on stump, but deserts him elsewhere.
It was this second Obama — the man who goes to watch the play when he has the lead role — on the stage in Denver. Obama stood, eyes down, smiling as if to endorse, not discredit, Romney, looking like a spectator who had come to watch Romney's bravura performance. In dealing with a hostile Congress, in lauding what his administration has achieved, even when trying to comfort the bereaved, Obama slips away into a place inside himself; he projects that sense of being alone in a crowd.
A girlfriend of Obama's youth is said to have told him that she loved him, and he responded "thank you." Passion on demand is not Obama's thing.
Romney can turn up the passion for brief interludes, like the debate. It's the sustained effort that makes him look awkward, uncomfortable and unsuited to public life. In the short format he can talk about the "plan" — whatever plan that is. No zingers here, no transcendental thoughts, nothing to suggest he understands how really difficult life is for working people; he conveys no empathy for most of the electorate.
Romney is a throwback to when gentlemen ran for office on the basis that they knew what was good for everyone else. No plan then, just an innate sense of superiority.
Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, is going to have a much harder time in his debate with Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday. That's because he has a plan, and it's written down in his House budget. And most people don't like it.