Back when it was just becoming evident that the odds of Mitt Romney becoming the Republican presidential nominee were decisively high, many of us worried that the resulting candidacy would be depressingly programmatic; that Romney, with a businessman's eye for the bottom line, would hew to a bland, poll-driven agenda that neither offended nor inspired, doing just enough to stand a reasonable chance of eking out victory in November (although, to be fair, even that scenario would have been preferable to the 2008 McCain campaign, perhaps the most sustained display of Tourette Syndrome in American political history).
The legitimate side of the this concern stemmed from the inescapable observation that Romney tends heavily towards risk-aversion. But there was also an unreasonable aspect to it. Left generally unarticulated was what kind of alternative conservatives would have preferred.
If, like me, you're a Tea Party sympathist happy to live in a country where we're once again discussing the Tenth Amendment and the shortcomings of the Federal Reserve, your vision of a dream candidacy is probably pretty simple: You want Barry Goldwater. Specifically, you want a sleep-deprived Barry Goldwater addled by six cups of brackish black coffee and feeling like he could really improve his mood if he could just punch a hippie. Yeah, me too. But that guy doesn't win presidential elections. He might get elected Governor of Wyoming, but he doesn't win presidential elections.
The truth of the matter is that at this (still admittedly early) point in the election cycle, we have to conclude that Mitt Romney has done a pretty good job of marrying his natural disposition (temperate, cautious, even courtly) with a broad defense of conservative principles. And, every now and again, he even has the pluck to refuse an opportunity to kiss the ring of a Really Bad Idea that has enjoyed bipartisan support. Take this, from National Journal, for example:
As part of an ongoing broad attack on President Obama's clean-energy efforts, including his economic-stimulus program that produced a default on a $535 million federal loan by solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, a Romney campaign spokesman said last week the GOP's presumptive nominee is firmly opposed to extending the tax credit for wind projects.
“He will allow the wind credit to expire, end the stimulus boondoggles, and create a level playing field on which all sources of energy can compete on their merits," Shawn McCoy, a spokesman for Romney’s Iowa campaign, said in an interview with The Des Moines Register. “Wind energy will thrive wherever it is economically competitive, and wherever private sector competitors with far more experience than the president believe the investment will produce results.”
You had me at "economically competitive."
Of course, there's a lot of hand-wringing accompanying this pronouncement, as wind power is a big deal in Iowa, which, by every indication, will be a swing state in the fall. And perhaps it is bad politics, though if the fate of the Republic lies in the hands of a few thousand advocates of 250-foot-high bird eviscerators, then I might start to consider writing off the entire American project.
Regardless, it shows that Romney is capable of having guts, at least on the economic issues that are most in his wheelhouse. And if there's anywhere that we need a little moxy right now, that's it. You have to have these kinds of arguments patiently, frequently, and with good cheer in order to move the needle of public opinion.
Of course, you also have to make them with just the right kind of sentiment, so here's one gentle note for the Romney campaign: the "level playing field" part of this response is the political winner. We can talk about economic inefficiencies all day (and they're legion -- according to the NJ piece, as many as half of Iowa's wind jobs are dependent on federal largesse), but the only people voting on the basis of the deadweight loss are either already in the Romney camp or are part of Gary Johnson's magical mystery tour.
The moral argument, by contrast, has broader appeal and is relatively straightforward: at at time of widespread economic pain, we're taxing working Americans (or, more accurately, taking out debt in their name) to fund products without a viable market, allowing political connections rather than merit to determine financial success.
I don't think it's excessively optimistic to believe that, even after three and a half years of the Obama Administration, the American people still feel -- deep down in their guts -- that that's dirty pool.