Politics & Policy

Where’s Mitt Romney?

Why was the once and future presidential contender missing from NY-23?

In October, everybody seemed to be doing it — getting into the campaign in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, that is. It was a three-way race among Republican Deirdre Scozzafava, Democrat Bill Owens, and Conservative Doug Hoffman to fill the seat that had been left vacant when President Obama tapped Republican John McHugh as secretary of the Army. Endorsements became such a popular sport for out-of-state Republicans that the special election came to seem a litmus test for conservatives looking at the 2012 presidential race.     

If it was, Newt Gingrich didn’t come off well among conservatives. Perhaps the biggest news was when the former Speaker of the House endorsed the Republican candidate. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound like news. But Scozzafava is a Republican who supported President Obama’s stimulus package and who won the support of NARAL Pro-Choice America in the NY-23 race. When she announced on Halloween that she was suspending her campaign, and then went on to endorse the Democrat, Owens, Gingrich declared himself “deeply disappointed.”

Among other prominent Republicans, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was caught off guard during a Washington, D.C., fundraiser, but once alerted to this race he quickly endorsed Hoffman and has been talking about him ever since (and has been subsequently pressed on what being a Republican means). And Sarah Palin Facebooked her enthusiastic endorsement of the same. Mike Huckabee showed up to deliver a paid speech at a New York Conservative party dinner but did not actually endorse Hoffman — that is, until Scozzafava withdrew. He’s been Tweeting for Hoffman ever since.

But notably missing from the endorsement mix was former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Less than a week before election day, while campaigning for the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, Bob McDonnell, Romney announced: “I have chosen not to endorse the Republican in the 23,” indicating that he thought that sent a message in and of itself.

His spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom elucidated: “Mitt Romney is a Republican and he tends to support the Republican candidate in races — and when he can’t, because there are too many differences on the issues, he stays out of the race altogether, and that’s the course he’s following in the New York special election. He doesn’t plan to make any endorsement at all.”

By not endorsing anyone in NY-23, the once and presumably future Republican presidential hopeful avoided the Gingrich problem — endorsing the Republican-who-could-comfortably-endorse-a-Democrat (and would!) — while avoiding the problem of opposing the candidate put forth by the party he would probably be approaching before long to support his own candidacy.

One could argue that Romney did what you would expect the establishment Republican candidate to do – and this suggests a different Romney from the one who ran in the 2008 primaries.  

It looked for a while in late October as if everyone who wanted to prove his or her conservative bona fides was talking about Hoffman. Romney could have very easily joined in — in a press release, in a Fox News appearance, even on National Review Online. But Romney didn’t really see a way he could be constructive in the race. Palin’s “Hoffman, Baby, Hoffman” wouldn’t have come naturally to Romney. And could you really see Romney teaming up with country singer John Rich to kick off a Hoffman rally, the way Fred Thompson did? Self-aware, Romney couldn’t see it either. And so he declined to play any prominent role — although NRO has learned that since Scozzafava officially exited the race, the Romney camp has reached out and provided help to Hoffman.

Romney’s role in NY-23 tracks with Ramesh Ponnuru’s analysis of his role in the political world right now in his recent piece “Romney Reboots.” “He has been detached and analytical rather than angry,” Ponnuru observed.

This time Romney could follow a different path. There are no prospective McCains or Giulianis, no heavyweights from the left or even the center of the party. Instead of running as the movement conservative in the race, Romney could run as a party-establishment candidate who is acceptable to the Right. That strategy wouldn’t require him to move left on the issues. But it would entail, among other things, taking fewer jabs at the other candidates for not being conservative enough (jabbing them for having bad ideas would still be in season). It would entail advertising Romney’s conservatism less. The policies could still be conservative — but he would promote them as good ideas more than as conservative ones. 

Romney seems more naturally an establishmentarian than a conservative insurgent, so this strategy would be a better fit for him than his last one. He is not a man to be swayed by the momentary passions of his party’s base; pretending otherwise adds to his reputation for slickness. If he ran as an establishment candidate, the fact that he used to take less conservative positions would still matter. But it would not matter as much, because he would no longer have to prove himself as a true-blue conservative.

The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato agrees there was something establishment-leaderish about Romney’s approach to NY-23. “Romney played it like a frontrunner,” Sabato says, “or perhaps a Solomonic king, splitting the baby. Problem is, he’s a weak frontrunner and definitely not king.”

This is why frontrunners are often vulnerable,” Sabato continues. “They are expected to make the ‘responsible’ choice and take some hits for the party without responding. Meanwhile, challengers are under no such obligation and have greater flexibility and maneuverability in situations like NY-23.”

Differing from the Ponnuru analysis, Sabato warns: “Being the preferred candidate of the Washington party establishment is not necessarily going to pay off in 2012.

From the looks of Romney and those around him, he’s comfortable with how he handled the 2009 election. He campaigned for McDonnell in Virginia (and also for a handful of down-ticket Republicans, incuding Ken Cuccinelli for attorney general and former aide Barbara Comstock for delegate) and for Chris Christie in New Jersey. And in New York’s 23rd, he didn’t support the Republican who would drop out and endorse the Democrat, thereby throwing a political pie in the face of every Republican who had endorsed her. Romney stands out without pie on his face. And he knows there are plenty of tests to come, far beyond upstate New York. He has already been campaigning for Senate candidates Rob Portman (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania), among others; his Free and Strong America PAC has contributed $190,000 to federal and state candidates in 2009. He’ll move in and out of such races as he deems constructive.

Romney’s main challenge if he is to run in 2012 may be to rise above the consistent snipes (and anyone who has ever said a positive word about him knows it’s a snipe-rich environment) and make a compelling case that he has the ideas and ability to do what Rush Limbaugh, on Fox News Sunday this weekend, said is essential for Republican candidates: If they can let all Americans know that they intend to lead in such a way as to “strengthen them, give them the tools, get out of their way and let them make this country work, the Republican party can attract a majority like they haven’t seen since the ’80s.” If nothing else, NY-23 may have been Mitt Romney giving this signal: Gone is the electoral cycle where conservatives say “Jump!” and I ask “How high?” I agree with you on a lot. A lifetime of experience in the corporate, government, and political worlds have brought me here, and this is why we should work together toward similar goals.

If he runs again, it’s going to be on his own terms. It’s the Let Romney Be Romney cycle. Which meant skirting the who’s-more-conservative? tug-of-war this time around.

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