Dinner With Democrats: Romney's Tough Prospects

Just as Gov. Mitt Romney seems to be closing in on a win in the Republican primary, he seems to have adopted what Steve Benen calls a losing argument for the general election: “Two weeks into 2012, Romney has a new message: don’t give Obama credit for making the economy better….This isn’t just a tough sell; it’s an impossible one.”

Given that Romney probably must win on Obama’s turf in 2012, it may be time to worry.

I had dinner with several Democrats recently–some “leftist,” some moderate–and their views on the Republican primary left me feeling rather uneasy. The fact is that many Democrats are eager to face Mitt Romney in the fall, no matter what they might say in public.

Gov. Mitt Romney (Photo source: Christian Science Monitor)

Democrats are frustrated with Barack Obama, but most want him to win in November–and they are pleased Romney is emerging as the likely Republican nominee.

Here’s why:

1. Romney hasn’t given voters a compelling reason to choose him over Obama. Obama is going to run on a version of “hope and change” again. It might sound absurd to Republican ears, but it’s a clear message: “We had to clean up a mess for the first four years. Things are getting better. Give me a chance to show you what we can really do.” Romney’s basic message is that he’s more competent than Obama. It’s weak stuff.

Worse than that, Romney’s bought into Obama’s ideas: e.g. the economy’s getting better; Obama’s bailouts were necessary; the “rich” don’t deserve capital gains tax cuts, but the “middle class” does; forcing everyone to buy health insurance enforces “responsibility”; it’s “erratic” to tell the truth about the Middle East or about the flaws of Social Security.

Basically, Romney is reducing the race to a personalty contest–which Obama will win.

2. Democrats believe Romney’s become extreme, despite his moderate message. One person, from Massachusetts, said that today’s Romney is a completely different person from the one who governed from 2003 to 2007. Democrats know he’s not “Tea Party,” but they believe he’ll give into it. It’s likely they’d believe that of any Republican, but nothing in Romney’s record or rhetoric, moderate though they may be, has convinced them otherwise.

3. Democrats believe that Obama is a moderate who has not done nearly enough. Romney hopes to appeal to voters who believe Obama has taken America in a radical direction. But many Democrats believe that Obama is a compromiser who yields far too often. The fact that Republicans see him in opposite terms is a real surprise to them. Regardless, they won’t choose a new moderate over the moderate they have already.

4. Democrats don’t trust Romney because they believe conservatives don’t either. Though Democrats tell themselves Romney is extreme, they sense he lacks the full trust of the conservative base. Their explanation is not that Romney has taken positions to the left of his party, but that he is a “flip-flopper.” Right or wrong, the fact that conservatives seems to have doubts about Romney is seen as a point against him, not in his favor.

5. Many Democrats have no idea how the economy works, and enjoy class war. The Democrats I spoke to seem to believe that the economy is a big pile of money that Wall Street dispenses at its pleasure. They are delighted by the fact that Republicans are attacking Romney for his record at Bain Capital, because it reinforces the class war narrative to which many Democrats–whatever their material circumstances–subscribe.

6. Democrats believe they are winning on social issues and will continue to do so. Though they still see Republicans as the party of the religious right, the fact that no Republican candidate has captured social conservatives’ enthusiasm is a sign to Democrats that they can win in 2012 on cultural issues alone–so much so that the Republicans won’t dare to nominate a candidate who makes those issues a priority.

To summarize:

Romney is blamed for everything Democrats dislike about conservatives and receives credit for none of the ways in which he disagrees with conservatives.

If he wants to win in November, Romney must summon the courage to draw distinctions with Obama on principle, not personality. If he won’t, or can’t, he’ll have to make the campaign a negative one that focuses on Obama’s weaknesses, rather than his own strengths.

Either way, Romney’s prospects will be tough.