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Fowler: The Degradation of Mitt Romney

March 21, 2012

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It should have been a walk in the park. Nine months ago I wrote on TheOpposition that, in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, “Romney has clung to a narrow but consistent lead for the past two years in public opinion polls. If nothing of note happens in the Republican primary, he should be able to piece victory together.” This has remained the underlying factor in the race for the past year, as various conservative challengers have risen to counter Romney, usually surpassing his steady 25% support, before flaming out and making way for the next. GOP challengers either refused the race or made such immediate clowns of themselves (Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and…I can’t remember the third one) that they essentially left the nomination with Romney’s name on it. However, it would be insane to say that “nothing of note” has happened in the race so far, since fears amongst the GOP establishment that the nomination fight will go all the way to the convention floor in Tampa have been growing despite Romney’s consistent lead in the delegate race. There are very few observers left who doubt that the general election will be between President Obama and Governor Romney, but this foregone conclusion comes with a caveat that was not apparent nine months ago. 

Despite being the only Republican candidate with a shred of sanity, and whose nomination would not automatically hand the president a landslide victory, Gov. Romney is undeniably a weaker candidate than he was before the race started. Unlike the primaries which tempered and strengthened the candidacies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and especially Barack Obama, Romney has been left answering why he has been unable to vanquish fringe opponents. Instead of focusing on delivering his economic message to distressed voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Romney has been forced to degrade his campaign and his stature by having to woo conservatives away from Rick Santorum, a man who is only still in the race because his surge in the polls came at the right moment (i.e. days before Iowa). If Romney cannot convince voters to choose him over a man who lost his last election by the widest margin for an incumbent since 1980, and whose main claim to fame before the race was his comparison of gay sex to “man on dog”, how will he ever convince voters to trust him over President Obama? If the race at this point was between Mitt Romney and Gov. Chris Christie, or even Tim Pawlenty, the argument could have been made that the primary was not unlike the Democratic one in 2008, and that the winner would emerge stronger and better tested. But against Santorum and Newt Gingrich? Has there ever been a “front runner” who emerged as broken, beaten, and rejected as Mitt Romney?

Elongated primaries are not necessarily damaging processes. In 2000, George W. Bush learned how to neutralize an opponents’ military pedigree in his race against John McCain, a lesson that would pay dividends in his eventual races against veterans Al Gore and John Kerry. Likewise, Barack Obama’s seemingly endless race against Hillary Clinton forced the superstar of the Left to hone his appeal to white working class voters, work that eventually padded his victory with wins in Indiana and Ohio. Romney’s race against Rick Santorum, however, has not had the desired effect of broadening the candidate’s appeal. Rather, Santorum’s popularity with evangelical and right-wing Republican base voters has forced Romney to compromise his general election candidacy; it is hard to argue that Romney will have an easier time winning women voters after vowing to end Planned Parenthood, or critical Hispanics after promising to veto the DREAM Act. It may be interesting to think what would have happened had Romney faced off with a single, credible conservative challenger from the beginning; had Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels or South Dakota Sen. John Thune decided to run it is hard to see how Romney could have emerged the victor. Alas, instead of an election contest between the ideological wings of the party, as is usually the case, Republicans were left to choose between a man they thoroughly dislike and challengers who have already been dumped by voters and lack even Romney’s fragile hold on presidential stature. 

None of this is to say that Romney would have been an especially strong general election nominee in the first place. While on paper his resume is impressive – a good looking, multimillionaire governor of the bluest state in the union – his weaknesses have always been glaringly obvious. His history of flip flopping (necessitated to a degree by the challenges of winning independents in Massachusetts as opposed to conservatives across the country) and Mormon faith that many evangelicals consider a non starter were always going to be problems for him. What is striking though is how uniquely ill-suited he is to an election in 2012 against the president. The business credentials many thought would allow him unassailable credibility on the economy have backfired and instead reinforced the view of him as a Wall Street plutocrat. His flip flopping, always dangerous in elections, has been perhaps fatally exploited by his opponents through the use of YouTube, where countless montages of Romney giving opposing views on issues ranging from abortion, gay rights, union rights, climate change, and immigration have not helped his image with voters looking for someone they can trust. And, of course, his passage of universal health care in Massachusetts became the blueprint for Obama’s, the same legislation that fired up conservatives so passionately and is considered perhaps Obama’s biggest weakness when it comes to winning independents. Not only does this undercut the GOP argument against health care, but yet again reinforces the view of Romney as a flip flopper every time he rails against the law’s infringements on freedoms and then defends his own, nearly identical law. A decade ago Gov. Mitt Romney may well have been an excellent nominee for president. In the current political climate dominated by Occupiers and Tea Partiers, however, there is not much room for a ‘Massachusetts moderate’ whose only consistent position over the past two decades is that his own taxes should be lowered. It straddles the line between tragedy and comedy that Romney’s Wall Street, 1% image seems ready ordered by President Obama, whose pivot towards center left populism and ardent defence of the middle class could not have been better complimented than by having Romney as his opponent.

 

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