It’s Mitt Romney. And that’s not a bad thing.
Those two sentences pretty much sum up the state of play in the GOP presidential sweepstakes. Romney is far more likely than current polls indicate to win the nomination, and while he may not be the conservatives’ dream candidate, he has a lot going for him.
We have seen other candidates rise and fall, but Romney has held steady at the mid-20% level for months. That clearly suggests that he has not thrilled the party faithful to their boots, but at the same time his staying power indicates that his support is not fickle, like it is for his rivals.
Romney has other advantages. He leads in the money sweepstakes, which counts for a lot. He also has had years to build up campaign organizations where it counts, and not coincidentally he has strong leads in several early primary states. National polls matter far less than the voting in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida.
Plus, he is a much more polished candidate than nearly all the rest, and far better than he was in 2008. The long series of televised debates have left barely a mark on him, and enhanced his standing as the adult among squabbling children.
More important, he would make a formidable candidate in the general election against Barack Obama. Here’s what I expect: Obama will not be able to run on his record. Even his signature achievement, Obamacare, still has majority disapproval among the general public. His handling of the economy has been dreadful – program after program of hyped up spending has grown the Federal debt rather than the economy. And while he can blame Congressional Republicans for his troubles, the fact is that he is the President, and it’s his job to find a way to pass the necessary legislation.
So, instead of touting his accomplishments, Obama will use his billion-dollar war chest to run a negative campaign, attempting to scare voters by painting his opponent as extreme or crazy. That will be a lot harder to do with Romney cast in the challenger’s role. Romney is not the revolutionary type – he is a manager. He has weaknesses that the Obama folks will definitely highlight, but he is not the accidental candidate served up by an over-enthusiastic Tea Party, like, say, Christine O’Donnell.
Finally, and most important of all – Romney would make a good President. The number-one issue in the election is the economy, and Romney has proven he is able to turn around floundering operations, whether that is the Salt Lake City Olympics or one of Bain Capital’s acquisitions. Moreover, he has shown he can govern, by running Massachusetts with a legislature from the opposite party, and achieving noteworthy legislation. Where Obama seems to lead by making speeches, Romney has led by doing.
He has one major weakness, however, and that is that he is not a conviction politician. His rival, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, described him as a “perfectly oiled weathervane.” He sometimes makes me think of Groucho Marx’s famous line: “Those are my principles. And if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”
Even during this primary campaign, he has sounded ambivalent rather than decisive on issues such as Ohio’s fight with its public employee unions, or on global warming. He has taken positions in the past, on issues such as abortion, that he repudiates today. And, of course, he has to answer for Romneycare.
Romney is a technocrat. His belief is in himself, in his ability to define a problem and craft a solution. Ordinarily, I would not be too happy with a candidate whose positions are that fluid. But in the 2012 election, when the comparison is to the aloofness and incompetence of the Obama White House, a can-do technocrat sounds like a breath of needed fresh air.
And because of that, I think the Republican masses will rally behind Romney once he gets the nod. Regardless of his positions on conservative litmus test issues, when the choice comes down to a flawed semi-conservative or four more years of Obama, the energy will be there.
None of the other top-tier candidates is really in a position to take it. Herman Cain has garnered a lot of interest, and he leads in some national polls. Personally, I think his is a terrific story of American hard work and progress, and I think he has made and would make a great leader. But his candidacy until recently had more of the feel of a book tour than a political campaign. His ground organization is comparatively weak, and the money only recently started rolling in. Despite his personal popularity and polling success, he has to be considered a long shot.
But I am grateful for Herman Cain for two reasons. First, he brought the conversation in this primary to core issues of serious tax reform with his 9-9-9 plan. Subsequently, both Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich have touted their own plans for tax overhaul, and while Romney’s 59-point economic program is timid by comparison, it would not surprise me to see him offer up some bolder ideas before it is all said and done. This ought to be the centerpiece of the Republican platform – our tax code is such a mess, riven by special deals, favoritism, complexities and contradictions that it ought to be scrapped completely.
The other value Herman Cain has brought is that he puts to flight the ridiculous notion, so often repeated by the left, that the Tea Party folks are racists. Cain is the embodiment of what we conservatives hoped Obama would be: proof that America in large measure has moved past defining issues and people by race. Liberals have a hard time letting go of this, in large measure because it serves their purposes to keep the race card up their sleeves. And no doubt there are those in some of the country’s conservative quarters that still see the world through that lens and validate the liberal view. But in everything I have seen, professionally, in my neighborhood, in the media, in sports, wherever, capable blacks don’t seem to be held back by the color of their skin. Herman Cain is evidence of that – I have heard no criticism at all of Cain based on his race.
Rick Perry has stumbled badly in his debate appearances. And that’s too bad. It has been even worse for Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman. The debate format rewards a certain showmanship, and doesn’t allow for measured discussion of important, complicated issues. Would Perry have been a more formidable candidate if he hadn’t been asked so frequently to think on his feet (at which he is demonstrably ill-suited)? We’ll probably never know. Both Huntsman and T-Paw have very strong records as governor, with bushels more experience at executive decision-making than Obama had when he ran, and they both have serious positions on important issues. But the circular firing squad format of these debates allows for precious little deep discussion.
So it’s Mitt. I can’t wait to see him face to face with the President.