The Problems of Mitt Romney
It’s not just Romneycare.


Ramesh Ponnuru

In the least surprising political news of the season, Mitt Romney is announcing his candidacy for president. This is essentially a formality since he never stopped running after 2008. He comes into the race with what has traditionally been the enormous advantage in Republican politics of having run at least once before.

He is set up for a classic, grind-it-out, front-running Republican campaign based on money, endorsements, and staying power. But he enters this slot in the race in the weakest condition of anyone who has ever tried to occupy it. He has nothing like the strength of a George W. Bush in the run-up to 2000, and is running for the nomination of a party whose establishment is disdained by its base as perhaps never before.

We all know Romney’s potential problem with his Massachusetts health-care program. Here we focus on five other questions that will be central to the Romney campaign and determine whether he is yet another next-in-line GOP nominee, or the victim of his own weaknesses and a drastically changed Republican landscape.

Has He Overlearned the Lessons of 2008?
In the early stages of the 2008 presidential race, the Republican primary field looked overweighted with moderates. Conservatives had strong disagreements with both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Romney differentiated himself by trying to run as the movement conservative in the race. Some of his advisers have concluded in retrospect that Romney went too far, especially since his efforts did not win him enough support among conservative evangelicals to win in places such as Iowa and South Carolina.

This time Romney is running as a business-oriented establishment Republican and keeping his distance from populist conservatism. In 2008 he tried to muscle aside conservative alternatives such as Fred Thompson. This time, Romney could benefit from crowding on the conservative end of the party as Bachmann, Santorum, Cain, and others make it harder for anyone to assemble a majority to his right. Last time, he staked everything on Iowa. Now he is competing there halfheartedly at best.

But Romney could be overdoing it again. At the same time he has moved, stylistically at least, to the left, the party as a whole has moved right. Romney is essentially making a bet that the tea-party phenomenon is overhyped. It’s a bet that went bad for several business-backed establishment candidates in the Republican primaries of 2010.

Romney may have learned another lesson from 2008 too well. Having been slammed for his flip-flops, he now seems to feel that he cannot switch positions on anything, from his Massachusetts health-care plan to ethanol subsidies. The other candidates (and possible candidates) are now exploiting his rigidity — advertising their own willingness to take on the ethanol lobby, for example. And it’s not at all clear that Romney is winning any points for his obviously calculated consistency.

Can He Overcome Doubts about His Authenticity?
There are plenty of voters who find everything about Romney calculated. They are reacting partly to Romney’s persona — his perfectly tidy appearance and the air about him of a salesman. There’s nothing he can do about this; it’s just who he is.

Team Romney hopes, though, that different circumstances than those of 2008 will make it easier for him to convince voters of his sincerity. In 2008, a Romney sympathizer says, “We tried very, very hard to impress every voter we met. We were going through an introduction phase, and at the same time, trying to get them to make an investment in the campaign. It’s like introducing yourself at the same time you’re asking them to marry you.” Also, starting out from scratch, the campaign “had to be very focused on the positioning” of the other candidates.

Now, this supporter argues, Romney is known to many Republican voters and doesn’t have to worry about picking his spots in a race dominated by well-established candidates like McCain and Giuliani. “He’s a better known candidate,” he says, “and his qualities — his experience, his command of the issues, his optimism — will come through and many voters will be able to connect with them.”

Romney is most convincing when he’s running as an economic technician determined to fix the economy, the thrust of his campaign so far this time. He’ll have to make the sale — while seeming like he’s not making a sale. And he’ll have to hope that an economic technician is what Republican primary voters want.