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The Trouble With Mitt

John Hinderaker encapsulates an assumption which has started to take hold among many of Mitt Romney’s backers: that the fault for what appears to be an increasingly likely 2012 election loss lies with conservatives for making this a real primary. Speaking of the see-saw of not-Romney candidates, he writes:

The same pattern has been repeated more than once during the current, discouraging presidential nominating process. If the GOP loses this year’s presidential contest, the party will have no one to blame but its own activists.

I’m hearing this meme repeated by many increasingly dejected Romney supporters around Washington, D.C. See, if people had just gotten in line when we told them to, the theory goes, things would be looking up. But this is revisionist history, and this is a meme that deserves to die.

It is ludicrous to claim that the fault lies among conservatives for Romney’s precipitous drop among independents, which he’s endured over the past month (in some polls, it’s been a negative swing of 20 points), the primary reason he now lags Obama in most measures. Consider: since Romney ground Newt Gingrich into pulp in Florida with his 65-1 ad ratio three weeks ago, there has been not one debate, not one major piece of scandal or breaking news, not even one major round of negative ads against Romney. There has only been a series of gaffes on Romney’s part (most notably his line about not caring about the very poor) and a series of numbers which show mild economic improvement.

In reality, it’s those who demanded conservatives get in line ages in advance who made a fundamental mistake in how they approached this election. By demanding an ideological shift from a more populist, more fiscally conservative base they no longer direct or control, Romney’s most prominent backers failed to learn any of the right lessons from what led to the 2009-2010 cycles. They failed to realize that the base expected more from a candidate, from a leader, than the politics and policy of the past. This problem worsened when their candidate put forward a meandering, maintenance-based agenda which inspires no one, not even his backers. As Jim Pethokoukis put it recently:

Mitt Romney wants to be the next president of a country in need of serious and sweeping economic reform. And here are the first two points in his 59-point economic plan:

1. Maintain current tax rates on personal income 2. Maintain current tax rates on interest, dividends, and capital gains

Now imagine private-equity boss Romney back at Bain Capital sitting down to read his team’s 59-point turnaround plan for some troubled widget maker. And imagine if the first two action items started with the phrase “Maintain current ….” Romney probably wouldn’t bother reading any further before tossing the report in the trash, calling a meeting, and cracking heads. Heck, if Private Equity Romney were called in to turn around Romney Campaign Inc., axing CEO Romney might be the first move on his to-do list—especially after looking at last night’s numbers from Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri.

Even worse than this unimpressive agenda is a failing of the candidate: that Romney has proven incapable of selling himself to the American people. In 2008, Romney failed in a horserace against McCain, Huckabee, Giuliani and Thompson. (Read Dan McLaughlin for reasons why.) Having the only real machine in the 2012 cycle and as an experienced candidate, he absolutely should have been able to stand on his own right as soon as this race came down to the far more flawed and less politically capable efforts of Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul. By all rights, he should be running circles around them all.

Romney has every advantage in money, endorsements, organization, name ID, looks, technology, volunteers, mail, data, and infrastructure. What’s more, Romney’s staff is fastidious and detail oriented. A recent news story focused on the effort his advance team puts into getting the lighting right for their candidate to make for the best newspaper photos the next day. Rick Santorum, for Pete’s sake, doesn’t even have an advance staff.

The reason Romney hasn’t ended this thing in a walk is that he hasn’t successfully sold himself to the base or the country. He has simply not delivered as a salesman of his ideas or himself. For someone who’s been compared time and again to a used BMW salesman, he is stuck in the same pandering rut that prevented him from closing the deal last time around.

Instead of counting on an agenda or an ability to personally inspire, the argument from his supporters has over and over again hinged on Romney’s purported electability. This is one of the weakest arguments to make in a primary, as Romney’s funders have acknowledged recently (because when you win, it’s expected; but when you lose, instead of a speedbump, it strikes at the core of the case you’re making). As the cracks developed in Romney’s armor, his prominent backers went from denial of their existence to an argument that they don’t matter to increasingly loud demands that Obama’s badness as a president will bring everyone together, so there’s nothing to worry about.

Here’s the problem: that last argument can be used by every candidate in the GOP field – it’s not specific to Romney at all. And I personally doubt that it’s true.

Again and again, Romney’s stump speech turns to how much he loves America the Beautiful, reciting the phrases and talking about the country. It may be sincere, even if it seems bland and rote. But here’s the point: even if it’s real, the conservative voting base wants and expects more from a candidate than policies of maintenance and mawkish patriotism.

Everything we’ve seen happen since the election of Barack Obama should’ve taught Romney and his supporters that lesson. But they decided to play it safe, counting on a terrible economy to bolster their chances. And now, the economy appears to be making slight but steady improvement, and his route to the nomination looks to be an extended trench war paired with an overwhelming air attack – two things designed to chew even further at his ability to pivot back to a general election strategy.

The competitive and lengthy primary is not the reason for Romney’s failure – it’s just revealed the things about him that make him fail. There are three ways Romney supporters could’ve avoided this circumstance. They could have run a different campaign. They could have run on a different agenda. Or they could have run a different candidate.

  1. Frozen Chosen

    Ben, If you accomplish 1/10th of what that used BMW salesman has done in his life you will have lived a very accomplished life.

    It’s so very easy for the pundits to sit on the sidelines and criticize the candidates because pundits are never ever held responsible for what they say.  You can be totally wrong today but tomorrow nobody cares when you come out with your next prediction or bit of advice.  Being a pundit means never having to say you were wrong.

    I am very sad to see Ricochet devolve into nothing more than an anti-Romney site.  Just a hint of balance from the editorial staff and contributors would’ve helped tremendously.

  2. Mendel

    This whole blame game is ridiculous on all sides.

    The reason the Republicans will probably lose this election is because all their candidates stink.

    Blaming a loss on conservatives or moderates or Establishment or Rush or Jennifer Rubin or Donald Trump is to miss the elephant in the room.  Would you blame a pitcher brought up from AA for losing his first game in the majors against the Yankees?

    Dealing with the poor choices this year seems to have driven Republicans into the Kübler-Ross stages of coping with grief.  Apparently denial has now turned to anger, to be replaced by the time of the convention with bargaining (“please, Mitch, jump in for the sake of the party!”). Hopefully acceptance will come before November.

  3. The New Clear Option

    Hear! <CoC violation> HEAR!

  4. Ben Domenech
    C
    Mendel: This whole blame game is ridiculous on all sides.

    The reason the Republicans will probably lose this election is becauseall their candidates stink.

    Blaming a loss on conservatives or moderates or Establishment or Rush or Jennifer Rubin or Donald Trump is to miss the elephant in the room.  Would you blame a pitcher brought up from AA for losing his first game in the majors against the Yankees? · 3 minutes ago

    I agree. It really is that simple!

  5. starnescl

    To Ben: Amen.

    Frozen, you miss the point, and that’s not what he’s doing.

    It’s not anti-Romney (even if that’s Ben’s position) to point out the polls and the increasing peril he’s in.

    For all his advantages, he’s not connecting with the primary electorate.  He didn’t last time either.  That is not the electorate’s fault.

    Romney is a great guy.  He’s accomplished.  So’s my dad, and he really shouldn’t run for president.

    Honestly, the dogs aren’t eating the dog food.

    I’m intrigued by Santorum and will support him fervently if he wins the nomination.  However, I sure am nervous for the general. 

    But then again, I was, and am, really nervous about Romney’s prospects in the general too, and that’s the point.

  6. Del Mar Dave
    Frozen Chosen: …  I am very sad to see Ricochet devolve into nothing more than an anti-Romney site.  Just a hint of balance from the editorial staff and contributors would’ve helped tremendously. · 6 minutes ago

    Oh, come ON!  I didn’t start out anti-Romney – just a skeptic based on his track record and his unreadable book (given to me by one of his enthusiastic bundlers).  As a veteran of the private equity world, Romney should have learned something more about selling. Very discouraging.  And yes, that applies to the entire field in a year when we could have forced and won a debate on what “fundamentally transform” should really mean to the U.S.

    Now it’s time to focus on the Senate and House.  Our candidates there will need massive help in the face of the Obama onslaught.

  7. Robert Promm

    The following sums it up best:

    Romney is the guy who lost to the guy who lost to the guy the last time.

  8. Leigh

    I don’t think John Hindraker is arguing here that conservatives should have “just gotten in line when we told them to” — after all, he preferred Pawlenty to Romney.  He is arguing that the circus-like rise of one improbable candidate after another has damaged the party.  That’s not quite the same thing. 

    The problem is that it spent so much time as a circus before it became a real primary.  For all the reasons you list, it’s astonishing that it took so long for someone who might be a credible alternative to gather consistent support.

  9. Bryan G. Stephens

    I am hearing the meme too. Those of us that did not support Romney will be blamed by the establishment for not getting on board at the beginning.

    See, we are the great unwashed. Listening to him on the HR Experience, John clearly sounded like he was unhappy with the voters for not just getting behind Romney. He feels Romney will lose and it will be our fault for not liking him. I guess we are all rubes.

    I am tired of being considered a rube by not only the other side, but my own. I want to win in 2012, and I will hold my nose and vote for Romney. But I think the man believes in tyranny just as surely as Obama, just less of it.

    But hey, if he loses it is my fault for not getting excited about him.

  10. iWc

    I so wanted to be sold on Romney.

    But I cannot stomach people who, at their core, think they are smart enough to run other people’s lives.

  11. Stuart Creque
    Frozen Chosen: Ben, If you accomplish 1/10th of what that used BMW salesman has done in his life you will have lived a very accomplished life.

    It’s so very easy for the pundits to sit on the sidelines and criticize the candidates because pundits are never ever held responsible for what they say.  You can be totally wrong today but tomorrow nobody cares when you come out with your next prediction or bit of advice.  Being a pundit means never having to say you were wrong.

    I am very sad to see Ricochet devolve into nothing more than an anti-Romney site.  Just a hint of balance from the editorial staff and contributors would’ve helped tremendously. · 31 minutes ago

    Mitt Romney is a great family man, a smart and successful businessman, a former Governor, a skilled manager…

    … and a terrible Presidential candidate.  The two sets of attributes are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, it may be that his skills as a businessman and manager have taught him lessons that have reduced his viability as a Presidential candidate in this cycle.

  12. Stuart Creque
    Ben Domenech

    Mendel: This whole blame game is ridiculous on all sides.

    The reason the Republicans will probably lose this election is becauseall their candidates stink.

    Blaming a loss on conservatives or moderates or Establishment or Rush or Jennifer Rubin or Donald Trump is to miss the elephant in the room.  Would you blame a pitcher brought up from AA for losing his first game in the majors against the Yankees? · 3 minutes ago

    I agree. It really is that simple! · 31 minutes ago

    Except that this is not Romney’s first turn in the Majors.

  13. cbc

    For whatever reason Romney cannot win elections.  Yes, he doesn’t have the base, but all the polls show he doesn’t have the independents either. Out here he just seems to be another Massachusetts governor.  His party affiliation is almost irrelevant. 

    We have no strong candidates at the moment.  We cannot successfully focus on the Senate and the House, because presidential candidates generally have (or don’t have) coattails. 

    At this point only the “Republican establishment” which has been funding and backing Romney have the financial resources, to successfully switch horses.  They seem to be as tone deaf to anything going on out here, as Obama is.   I used to think Carl Rove knew what he was doing.  He doesn’t. 

    It is all very very grim.  

  14. Frozen Chosen

    I should clarify that I really wouldn’t have a problem with all the anti-Romney articles if occasionally – just occasionally - the editors or contributors would do an anti-Santorum or anti-Gingrich or anti-any of the ABR candidates article.

    Santorum has a whole host of issues  but will you hear about any of them on this site?  Doubtful.

  15. Guruforhire

    So its the customers fault when the product is crappy and without redemptive value?

  16. Stuart Creque

    Ben, thank you for including that video clip.  It really is illustrative of a kind of mindless mumbling in search of some word or phrase that will stick in the audience’s mind.  With a little thought, those words and ideas could have been turned into something coherent that made the points:

    1) That Romney has roots in Michigan.

    2) That Romney has an abiding love for the state, its people and its industries.

    3) That Romney is saddened and outraged at how far this former industrial powerhouse has fallen.

    4) That Romney has a plan for turning that decline around and restoring Michigan’s place as an industrial powerhouse.

    Instead, we get, “I love American cars, long may they rule.”   Really, Mitt?  American cars don’t rule the world.  Imports hold 55% of the American market.  What in the world do you propose to do about that?  Or at least about getting people in Michigan (unemployment 9.3%) back to work?

    (By the way, Mitt, since Michigan’s unemployment rate is at its lowest since Sept. 2008, how do you plan to convince Michigan voters that they need to fire Obama and hire you to improve their economic outlook?)

  17. Mendel
    Robert Promm: The following sums it up best:

    Romney is the guy who lost to the guy who lost to the guy the last time.

    Stuart Creque

    Except that this is not Romney’s first turn in the Majors.

    Both of you are making my point for me.  If Romney is such an incredibly flawed candidate (which I whole-heartedly agree with), the fact that not one of his six opponents was able to keep him from becoming a frontrunner speaks as much about them as does about him.

    All the candidates this year are minor leaguers.  And this is not meant as an endorsement of any one of them — but it is time to stop whining and get over it.

  18. Bill Walsh

    Mendel is right: this clown car of a primary likely doomed the GOP to defeat ab initio.

    However, Ben’s point is important for going forward: the moderate faction of the GOP is committed to the narrative that the lunatic Jebus-freak conservative wing is dooming the party. If Romney goes down in the general it’ll be because he was too damaged by the conservative activists in the primaries. If Santorum goes down in the general, it’s because he’s a lunatic of the type which Must Be Stopped.

    The conservative wing of the party has, more or less, the mirror-image narrative, though they’re convinced that conservative principles make any candidate electable. (Whereas the “establishment” thinks that only a significant dose of liberalish moderation puts independents in play.) Consequently, if Santorum goes down in flames, they’re less likely to blame the Mitt crowd, but will be more tempted by a blame-stupid-America narrative that can lead them further down a sectarian rat hole.

    Here’s an interesting question: say one of these guys wins. Does it lead to an intra-party purge at at least the higher levels?

  19. billy

    This defeatism is way too premature. I think either Romney or  Santorum has a very good chance of winning the general. (I think Santorum has a better one) Just bear in mind, those mushy-headed independents, the ones who will decide the fate of our country this November, haven’t given the matter much thought.

  20. Stuart Creque
    Mendel

    Robert Promm: The following sums it up best:

    Romney is the guy who lost to the guy who lost to the guy the last time.

    Stuart Creque

    Except that this is not Romney’s first turn in the Majors.

    Both of you are making my point for me.  If Romney is such an incredibly flawed candidate (which I whole-heartedly agree with), the fact that not one of hissixopponents was able to keep him from becoming a frontrunner speaks as much about them as does about him.

    Allthe candidates this year are minor leaguers.  And this is not meant as an endorsement of any one of them — but it is time to stop whining and get over it. · 7 minutes ago

    I would take your point if all of Romney’s challengers had started with his resources.

    Perry had access to substantial resources and proved to be a real minor-leaguer unprepared for the big time.

    On the other end of the spectrum, Santorum had access to next to no resources and parlayed that weak war chest (sorry for the mixed metaphor) into a razor-thin win in Iowa and a lead today.

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