Magazine | October 19, 2009, Issue

Romney Reboots

Thinking about 2012

In the early stages of the undeclared race for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney is the frontrunner. The former governor of Massachusetts has the best-developed national network of supporters of any of the potential candidates. He is the one doing the most party-building across the country; of his potential rivals, only Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty comes close. He is the one to whom other Republicans are most likely to turn for answers on economic policy, and on many issues he is the only one giving them. When the auto companies came to Washington only Romney had a plan (“Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check,” he wrote in the New York Times).

He knows more about a larger range of policy issues than most of the other Republican candidates. All the candidates can, presumably, say something plausible about Afghanistan; not many can give a credible answer to a question about the role mark-to-market accounting rules played in the financial crisis, as Romney recently did in an interview with me.

A Republican strategist with no ties to Romney recently heard him speak and came away impressed by how much better a speaker he has become. “His stump speech has gotten very, very good. It’s very honed.” In a recent Rasmussen poll, Romney narrowly beat Sarah Palin as the candidate Republican voters most favored. Even the narrowness of that win may work to his advantage. Romney is not so far out in front that he has to worry about meeting high expectations. Nor has he ever made himself the center of attention. Thus he has avoided much criticism and kept voters from getting bored with him. He has been detached and analytical rather than angry.

Romney still has his old-fashioned leading-man looks. He is seasoned. (Only once in the last 50 years have Republicans won with a nominee making his first run for president.) And his aides think they have learned from the mistakes they made in 2007 and 2008. Romney has had an excellent 2009.

Then again, George Allen had a pretty good 2005. At that time Senator Allen and Sen. Bill Frist were counted as two of the party’s top contenders for the 2008 nomination. Both were out of public life by the time the election year came. Romney is in a different situation than either of those men. But he faces a formidable list of obstacles, both old and new.

One theory that has received a thorough airing in the press is that Romney made a mistake in moving to the right in the run-up to the 2008 primaries: that he should have run as a problem-solver rather than a culture warrior and thus avoided charges of flip-flopping. The theory, in its strongest form, is dubious. Romney was never going to oust Rudolph Giuliani from the competent-pro-choicer niche, and it turned out in any case not to be a promising place from which to run for the Republican nomination. Becoming a pro-life politician was expedient as well as just. And it’s not as though Romney could have ducked on same-sex marriage once his state became the only one in the country to recognize it, and by judicial fiat to boot.

Romney’s current and former consultants tend to agree about what he did wrong last time. They do not fault the flip-flops. But “inauthentic” is a word that often comes up. “It’s a matter of emphasis,” says one former adviser. “He emphasized issues that didn’t fit his profile. The volume, the way he presented them, didn’t fit with who he is.” This adviser cites Romney’s attacks on McCain and Giuliani over their support for an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Another ’08 veteran agrees that Romney was badly positioned but mostly blames reporters. “They wanted to write the Mormon story and the abortion flip-flop story. And then in Iowa when the marriage issue [came] up, you [had] to talk about it.”

These Romneyites do not believe that the governor should abandon his conservative positions on the social issues. Most of them share those positions, and also know that flip-flopping again would render Romney ridiculous. They just want him to avoid emphasizing the social issues. It is advice he appears to be taking to heart. Economics and foreign policy, in that order, have been the focus of his public comments. His critique of Obama has been that the president is endangering our currency by spending so much on domestic programs, threatening our security by cutting defense spending, and reducing our credibility with allies by drawing closer to our enemies. Romney has not complained about Obama’s social liberalism. At one point, Romney was fighting against liberal policies on stem cells more actively than any other governor in the country. When I asked him about Obama’s record on the subject, he began his answer by noting that he had not been following it much over the last year.

This new strategy of playing down social issues raises the question of how the candidate should handle the Iowa caucuses. For much of 2007 Romney banked on winning Iowa (based on his social conservatism and money) and New Hampshire (based on his fiscal conservatism, money, and proximity) and thus establishing the momentum to win the nomination. After he lost Iowa to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, whose late surge took many observers by surprise, he never quite recovered. Some Romney supporters believe that hostility to Mormons among evangelical voters in Iowa doomed him, and that the effort to appeal to those voters forced him to overemphasize the social issues. Others say that his mistake was to have a more or less openly announced strategy that required him to win the state, and that better management of expectations would make a second-place finish there next time respectable. (The loss last time should keep those expectations in check.)

All these advisers may, however, be looking at Romney’s options too narrowly. Romney’s strategy in the last campaign was not to run as the social conservatives’ candidate. It was to run as the movement-conservative candidate. Throughout the primary he claimed that he best represented what he called “the three legs of the stool” holding up conservatism, with the legs representing conservative positions on social issues, economics, and foreign policy. The attempt to rally his party’s right made a certain strategic sense. Giuliani and John McCain started the primary season with higher profiles than Romney and, in different ways, represented the party’s left wing. Running to the right thus presented Romney with an opportunity.

Yet it is extremely difficult — more difficult than many people realize — to capture the Republican presidential nomination from the right in the modern era. The politics of religion largely account for this difficulty. The movement candidacy always runs a risk of being destroyed by an evangelical candidacy. No movement candidate can win without strong support from evangelical voters. But an evangelical candidate running on the basis of his religion can win a lot of votes from his coreligionists, and thus block the movement candidate’s progress, without being able to win the nomination himself. As Huckabee showed in the last race, the evangelical candidate need not be well-known or well-funded to play this role. Pat Robertson played it in 1988. (Pat Buchanan splintered the movement in a slightly different way in 1996.)

Romney’s problem was not that he is a Mormon. It was that he is not an evangelical. A strong plurality of evangelicals “would have backed Huckabee against anybody — Mormon, Buddhist, or Catholic,” says another former Romney adviser. “They were voting for one of their own.” To attribute Romney’s loss in Iowa to anti-Mormon prejudice from evangelicals, he says, is like attributing Romney’s victories in Utah and Nevada to Mormons’ hostility to people from all other faiths. But this adviser reaches the same conclusion as his colleagues who blamed anti-Mormonism: Romney should not spend as much time and resources on Iowa next time. 

The movement candidate labors under another burden: He is competing for votes with everyone else in the field. He has to fight the establishment candidate to his left and the evangelical candidate to his right, while neither of them fights the other. McCain and Huckabee were not, by and large, competing for the same voters. That’s one reason Romney was the man most uniformly hated by the other candidates, and why voters saw Romney as the most negative candidate.

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.

Even with this shift of emphasis, however, Romney would still face two serious obstacles to his nomination. The first is the health-care plan he signed as governor of Massachusetts. Republican opinion has hardened against that plan, which can reasonably be described as the national Democrats’ plan minus the public option. Potential rivals for the 2012 nomination such as Pawlenty and Huckabee have taken shots at the plan.

Romney makes three arguments in his defense. The first is that a Democratic legislature and his Democratic successor made the plan worse than his original conception. The second is that he has no intention of pushing the Massachusetts plan on the entire country. Health-care reform, he tells me, “should occur on a state-by-state basis.” The third is that the plan has worked out well for his state. “The plan is well within budget and has accomplished its objectives at a relatively modest cost.” 

It’s that third point that could get Romney into trouble. The cost to the state government has indeed been modest. But the plan was designed so that the state picks up only a fifth of the costs the plan generates, with the federal government and the private sector absorbing the rest. Premiums are growing much faster than in the rest of the nation. Waiting times are up, too, which imposes costs on people. The plan is losing popularity in Massachusetts. Ideally, Romney would learn from this experience that a reform centered on state governments’ manipulation of federal dollars is a mistake. At the very least, Romney would be foolish to keep defending the plan.

To be a strong candidate, finally, Romney has to address one weakness that has not gotten much attention: his lack of appeal to middle-income and low-income voters. The exit polls from the primaries tell a consistent story. In Iowa and Florida, he won pluralities only among those voters who made more than $100,000 a year. In New Hampshire, voters had to make more than $150,000 before they started favoring him. Michigan, where Romney’s father was governor, was the great exception: Romney won among every income group above $30,000 a year. If Romney can’t find an economic message and a way of making it that appeals to middle-class voters, he may as well save his money and not bother running.

He gives every sign that he is in the race. The weekend I met with him, Romney addressed the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit; did separate fundraising events for Republican candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and state representative in Virginia; spoke at a conference of the Foreign Policy Institute; and sat down with at least two other reporters. His book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, comes out next spring.

Romney believes that Republicans are on the rebound, thanks to President Obama. “I think the concern about the direction he is taking America in foreign policy and domestic policy is mounting. . . . I don’t think for a minute that the country subscribes to President Obama’s foreign policy. . . . I don’t think the country is enamored with the idea of a single-payer health-care system. . . . I don’t think the country wants a cap-and-trade program that could cost the average American family $1,761 [a year].”

Earlier in the interview, he spoke about his primary campaign and McCain’s general-election campaign in 2008. “I heard something from [former HHS] secretary Mike Leavitt which has stuck with me. . . . He said he was watching the ABC Wide World of Sports years ago with the surfing championships. The commentator said that to win the surfing championships requires a person of extraordinary skill and a good wave.” Few have ever doubted that Mitt Romney is a person of extraordinary skill.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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