Finding Inspiration in a “Severe” Conservative — 13 February 2012

The window is closing for Mitt Romney to close the deal with conservatives.  I have been pretty disappointed with him over the course of the last couple of months as he has miffed opportunity after opportunity to rise to people’s expectations.  He has been almost apologetic about his wealth and his tax returns, instead of issuing a full-throated endorsement of the free enterprise system that made it possible.  Same with the seemingly reluctant defense of his career at Bain Capital, so misleadingly attacked by Newt Gingrich.

This is an election that ought to be about big questions concerning the role of government in our society.  Barack Obama has set us on the path toward European-style social democracy, with government controlling or managing an increasing proportion of the economy and the private sector stunted by taxes and regulation.  The GOP standard-bearer needs to respond with a bold program of tax reform, spending control and business-friendly policies.  Romney, as the charge goes, has offered little beyond his resume as a reason he should be President.

His gaffe about being “not concerned” about the poor was damaging in my view less because the left could distort his meaning and attack him as being uncaring, than because of what it revealed about his view of our society.  The conservative approach would not be to separate people into classes but to speak of an economy in which all could move up on their respective portion of the opportunity scale.  Addressing “the rich,” “the poor” and “the middle class” uses the language of the left, and concedes to the other side the definition of the problem.  More to the point, the remark shows that much as he has personally thrived from it, the opportunity society is not instinctively part of his world view.

Romney’s 59-point economic plan is neither bold nor inspirational, but it emphasizes as perhaps nothing else how his pitch is based on the management consultant, technocratic approach.  Much of the party faithful are looking for a tribune, an inspirational leader to lead the charge for free people and free markets.  That’s why virtually all the candidates have invoked the image of Ronald Reagan, hoping the association would make them him in the eyes of the activists.   The fact that neither the clear leader nor, frankly, any of the surviving candidates fits the bill is one significant reason for the party’s angst.  Thus we see voter turnout in most of the primaries to date falling well below the 2008 campaign (except for Newt’s South Carolina surprise), even though one would think the desire to rid the White House of Barack Obama would be a strong motivator.

Romney has a bigger problem, however, than simply not being an instinctive conservative.   The vast bulk of his campaign proposition is economic, and I am getting the feeling that come election day the economy will have faded some from voters’ top-of-mind.  The recovery, as I have said before, is very likely to limp along with a generally disappointing but upward trajectory.  If we get a few more employment reports like January’s, with surprising declines in the unemployment rate (even if that decline was due more to frustrated job-seekers quitting the search than to genuine job growth), that could be enough to defuse the issue for Obama.

On the other hand, I see two issues with the potential to become major hot buttons in the Presidential campaign, and neither one of them plays to Romney’s strengths.  The first is Obamacare.  As the recent flap over the requirement to pay for contraception indicates, we are only now coming to learn the unpleasant details it contains in its 3,000 pages.  Don’t forget, too, that the Supreme Court will rule this spring on whether the law’s key provision – the individual mandate – squares with the Constitution’s limits on the Federal government’s power.

Whichever way that decision goes, it is certain to bring the whole issue of the law’s arrogant assumptions, its anti-democratic birth, and widespread discontent with that misbegotten piece of social engineering to the forefront of the campaign.  Despite how well he crafts his explanations of the Massachusetts equivalent, Romney is simply not well-placed to take the fight to Obama over health care.

The second issue is Iran.  Despite all the outreach, the extended hand, the abandonment of the democracy protesters, all the “I am not Bush” foreign policy, the mullahs continue to respond to Obama with contempt.  And now Secretary Panetta, just a couple of weeks ago, affirmed the intelligence community’s current belief that Iran could have a nuclear weapon within a year.

Not only is that threshold rapidly approaching, the window is also closing in which a military strike could effectively stall the weapons program – alongside the development of nuclear capability, Iran is building hardened defenses and underground facilities that will resist most direct attacks.

Because of this, I believe the odds are better than even that Israel will find it has no choice other than to attack Iran sometime this spring or early summer to put an end to this existential threat.  That will cause an international crisis, perhaps a multi-lateral war, in the months leading up to the election.

Regardless of how Obama responds, I think this would work to Romney’s disadvantage.  Governors tend not to be well-versed in foreign policy issues, and Romney’s foreign policy statements – like those of most non-administration candidates, to be fair – tend to consist of generalities rather than knowledgeable detail.

There’s also the tradition of politics stopping at the water’s edge.  While that rule of thumb has certainly been violated in recent years, there is nonetheless a respect accorded the office of the President – and it is more likely to be observed by Republicans than Democrats – that says foreign crises are not the raw material from which successful campaigns are formed.

So there is a good likelihood that by summer the big issues on voters’ minds will be the great question of government in America, the rejection or the affirmation of Obamacare, and a new MidEast crisis, with jobs, debt and deficit following as a sort of continual Greek chorus.  Mitt Romney, whose claim to the mantle is that he knows jobs and business, will appear to have missed his moment.

This in turn leads me to think that there could be surprises in Tampa this August – quite possibly a candidate draft that will produce a name that will excite the GOP and get them eager to rally and hit the streets.  Who will it be? Jeb Bush?  Paul Ryan?  Chris Christie?  Mitch Daniels?  For all that Rick Santorum is exciting people these days, I can’t shake the notion that in the grand scheme of possibilities he is little more than the latest Not Mitt.

This is what Romney faces.   He still has a chance, and I think he made a start at CPAC this past weekend (although what believer would describe himself as “severely conservative“?).  But he has got to become a message candidate instead of a powerpoint speaker,  and broaden the sense of his capableness if he is going to either win the nomination or take Obama’s job.

This nomination has been Romney’s to lose.  He might prove up to the task.

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