With Rick Santorum’s decision to bow out of the Republican presidential nomination race, Mitt Romney becomes the default nominee for the Republican Party. But then again, he was the default all along – he was everyone’s second choice, beloved by few, respected by all.
In the end, though, Romney was the best candidate. That doesn’t mean he was the best conservative, or the most principled politician, or the most electable man on the stage. It means that he weathered attacks with aplomb, showed he had sharp elbows, and didn’t make any crucial gaffes to undercut the basic message of his campaign: that he was a highly skilled and competent campaigner. Romney campaigned on his managerial skills, and if his campaign is any indicator, he is indeed a master manager.
The question now is whether the master manager can defeat the master manipulator.
Mitt Romney is a steady candidate. But he is unspectacular. President Obama, by contrast, is spectacular but unsteady – he vacillates widely in the polls. Here’s how they match up on the issues:
The Economy. The key question here is public perception. The economy remains weak. Job creation is not picking up at the pace necessary to bring us back to sustainable unemployment levels; the only factor holding up unemployment levels is a three-decade low in terms of Americans in the workforce. Obama, of course, will point to the jobs created over the last two years while ignoring the jobs destroyed over his first two years; he’ll cite the baseline unemployment percentage. He’ll argue that less people are employed, but less people are looking for jobs, so it’s a net win. He has the media on his side in this argument, and an establishment looking to enshrine Keynesianism.
Romney has an uphill battle on the economy. Americans have a sense that things aren’t great, but they’re being informed otherwise by the media. The stock market is hanging around the 13,000 level, significantly higher than it was when Obama took over, thanks in large measure to inflation – but it’s easier to understand the net number than it is to understand how we got there. The unemployment rate requires explication. Even gas prices are a dangerous peg on which to hang a campaign – Obama could simply offer OPEC countries nasty tidbits on Israel in exchange for a convenient pump priming.
Romney’s great advantage comes on taxes and spending. He doesn’t want to raise taxes, and neither do most Americans; he wants to cut spending, and so do most Americans. He will have to hammer this issue over and over again – and avoid being cut by President Obama’s citation of Romneycare as the basis for Obamacare while doing so.
Foreign Policy. Romney has a clear advantage on foreign policy. President Obama’s boo-boo during his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which he suggested that concessions would follow his re-election, told Americans who they have in the Oval Office: an appeaser of the highest order. Obama is simply hoping that catastrophe in the Middle East will wait for his re-election, which is why his Defense Department has been routinely leaking inside Israeli information on Iran.
Social Issues. On social issues, Romney has a significant advantage, so long as he doesn’t make them central to his platform. Americans by and large want some restrictions on abortion and still are split on gay marriage. But the White House has pressed its case in this area, trying to turn Romney into a fringe character who wants to end contraceptive use. Watch for the White House to play the Mormon card early and often. Romney, meanwhile, must find a way to bridge his gap with women. He certainly will have an easier time doing that than Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum would have.
Race. Obama has spent the last several months tearing Americans apart on the basis of race. Injecting himself into the Trayvon Martin case was just the latest example of this tactic. He will no doubt attempt to rally the African-American and Hispanic base to him, and he will no doubt meet with some success. Romney must find a wedge issue – the Obama administration’s assault on the Catholic Church certainly counts – and remind Hispanic voters of it.
Personality. Here is where the media bias in favor of Obama really tells. The media has portrayed Obama – by insider accounts, a man of both extreme egoism and extreme pusillanimity in times of crisis – as a reasonable, rational pragmatist with a beautiful family. A nice fellow who would never knife his opponents. A dreamer who has been weighed down by the dirty pool of Washington D.C.
Romney, by contrast, is actually a nice fellow by all accounts – a great family man, a charitable giver, a major asset to his community. And he has been portrayed as a job-killer who doesn’t care about the poor. Romney must loosen up to be taken seriously. He cannot fall into the trap of looking like a stodgy businessman. Jeans would do him good.
Back in 2007, after the devastating California wildfires, Mitt Romney was in the state campaigning. A local person was having difficulty removing a tree stump from his yard; the tree had been damaged by fire. Romney promptly grabbed a chainsaw and helped the guy remove the stump. The press was nowhere to be found.
This time, the press needs to be nearby when Romney undertakes such acts of kindness. If they aren’t, they’ll simply ignore the story, just as they did in 2007.
So, can Mitt Romney win? He certainly can. He will have to run a near-perfect campaign to defeat Obama and his media machine. But he is battle-tested, and he is highly intelligent. He needs to learn to inspire, and he needs to allow his personality to emerge more. He also needs to direct the conversation toward his areas of strength: taxes, spending, and foreign policy.
Conservatives, meanwhile, need to take a deep breath and recognize their mission. It is twofold. First, they must vet Romney; they must keep him honest and ensure that he governs as a conservative if elected. Redefining conservatism to fit Romney – pretending that Romneycare is conservative, or that his flip-flopping on issues like the value added tax is conservative – would be a tragic mistake. Instead, we have to go to battle with the candidate we have, not the candidate we wish we had. And we have to remember: the alternative to Mitt Romney, who at least respects conservatism in principle, is Barack Obama, who despises conservatism with every fiber of his being.
But Barack Obama is certainly vulnerable. And Mitt Romney was, indeed, the best candidate in the field. Now we see whether Romney can build enough momentum to carry him into the White House.