Romney Taking the Wrong Lesson from South Carolina

by Andrew C. McCarthy

Mitt is attacking Newt for allegedly lobbying on behalf of Freddie Mac and President Bush’s prescription drug benefit. Newt maintains that he never “lobbied.” So we now have a two-ships-passing-in-the-night fiasco reminiscent of the “torture” debate.

The popular understanding of lobbying is importantly different from the narrower concept of legally actionable lobbying. Both sides throw the term around without explaining the distinction — Mitt darkly suggests that Newt has not only associated himself with one of the immensely unpopular mortgage giants but done something unethical — or perhaps even illegal — in the process; Newt responds that there is nothing to see here because he consulted lawyers in order to stay on the legal side of the barrier — as if any sort of facilitation or promotional work in support of wayward private/public enterprises, which disastrously intrude government into the private sector, is fine as long as it steered carefully clear of indictable conduct.

Romney needs to understand that he did not get walloped in South Carolina because he failed to tar Gingrich enough. Newt’s failings are already notorious. Mitt’s problem is that he is failing to make the case for himself as a reliable conservative, which is causing conservatives to look elsewhere. As I’ve indicated before, I don’t think it is impossible for Romney, even at this late stage, to address — or at least mitigate — this problem. But he is not going to rally the enthusiasm he needs to win by dirtying up the competition. He needs to convince us that he’s the most conservative candidate who can be elected — if he continues to neglect the “most conservative” part, he can forget about the “can get elected” part.

And for what it’s worth, I suspect he is leading with his chin on Freddie and prescription drugs. The Democrats are already out with a story about how, while Mitt has been publicly pummeling the mortgage giants, he has been privately investing in them, at a handsome profit, through a mutual fund. I heard Newt mention this story in an interview this morning, and I imagine that will be a regular topic for the next couple of days. I doubt it’s anything most of us would much care about … except that Mitt has chosen to make Newt’s Freddie connection a big deal.

As far as Bush’s Medicare Part D plan is concerned, conservatives are going to be a lot less concerned about whether Newt lobbied for it than about how the various candidates stand on it as a matter of policy. Many of us believe that, notwithstanding some positive elements (which James Capretta describes here), it was wildly irresponsible to add a new entitlement program — one the comptroller general called “probably the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s” — to the Medicare entitlement program whose costs were already out of the stratosphere.

When Newt gave a full-throated defense of the prescription drug entitlement last night, it left a big fat opening for someone to make the limited government case against entitlement expansion. But, alas, no one stepped up to the plate. You can see why. Mitt has spoken favorably of the prescription drug plan (see, e.g., here and here). Like Rick Santorum, who voted for Part D, Romney says he wishes the legislation creating the new entitlement had been more fiscally responsible and had dealt with Medicare’s ruinous cost projections. But that was not going to happen — the choice at the time was to be for it or against it. You’re left saying to yourself, “No way the architect of Romneycare would have been against it.” He’s not giving you any reason to think otherwise. And if you’re convinced he’d have been for it, who cares about his complaints regarding Gingrich’s efforts to get it passed? 

Newt’s negatives are well known, and they are being very effectively highlighted by conservative journalists, Romney surrogates, and members of Congress who served while Gingrich was Speaker (including Ron Paul last night). Romney makes himself seem small by focusing on them. He also looks very uncomfortable doing it — it’s not him. Mitt needs to focus on improving the conservative case for Mitt. 

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