Mitt Romney Did a Good Job of Being a Bad Candidate

The T-1000 poly-Mitt alloy who lost to Barack Obama last night is wide open to criticism for his Teflon, managerial ideology. But it raises the question if anyone could have done better, including consistently ideological Mitt Romneys from alternate universes.

Mitt Romney rally

 

The knives are already out for Mitt Romney. Here’s John Kass:

Obama was ripe for the picking, yes, but Romney ran a terrible campaign. Historians will trace it back to the pungent “Etch A Sketch” comment by Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom.

After Romney campaigned as a conservative in the primaries, Fehrnstrom announced the candidate would hit the “reset button” to become a moderate.

“Everything changes,” Fehrnstrom told CNN months ago. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

The Republican grass-roots blanched. Who was this man, a conservative, a flip-flopper? Or just another establishment Republican corporatist without a core.

My impression, following Romney, was that he did a decent job of running a terrible campaign. He was in a fix from the beginning; that he would run a terrible campaign was almost foreordained. He had to run as a conservative in the primaries; there was already a handsome, rich Mormon moderate ex-governor quite determined to run as a moderate, and though Jon Huntsman did not have Romney’s Q rating, he provides a reasonably good proxy for the question “what if Romney ran as a moderate?” and not the “severely conservative” ex-governor of Massachusetts, a preposterous idea on its face.

Rick Santorum likely would have survived the primary equivalent of touch-a-truck over the parodic Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, whose passionate fan base turned out to have a hard cap. Santorum was last seen in electoral politics losing his Senate seat in 2006 by 18 percent.

Romney campaigned as a conservative, in his baffled way, and survived. But the conservative Romney struggled, and he lurched to the center… with the blessing of fiscal and social conservatives, and began to pull even in the polls:

A big reason John McCain lost Florida in 2008 was that his presidential campaign arrived there for the general election dressed in red when the invitation said purple. Florida, which has the nation’s largest cache of independent voters, tends to prefer more moderate presidential politics.

[snip]

In 2012, Mitt Romney seems to have learned from McCain’s mistakes in the nation’s largest swing state—turning September poll deficits of as many as nine points in Florida into a slim but tenacious lead over President Obama. Romney sounded more conservative during most of this year’s Republican primaries. But he morphed back into The Pragmatic Massachusetts Governor during his triumphant first debate with President Obama on Oct. 3, and he’s been lavishing Moderate Mitt on the Sunshine State ever since, starting with an Oct. 5 rally in St. Petersburg, where he offered emotional personal anecdotes. Women voters there have warmed to his softer rhetoric on contraception and abortion, and even Florida’s non-Cuban Latinos, especially in the all-important I-4 Corridor between Tampa and Orlando, are listening to Romney’s promise to forge the comprehensive immigration reform that Obama pledged but has not delivered.

Romney did not pull off this crossover well. It would have been difficult for any normal human being to do so, and unsettling if he had. The effect was less like erasing an Etch-a-Sketch than trying to find the signal from a distant, drifting radio station, with something like a platform trying to emerge from cross-talk and fuzz. The moderate Romney that came in to focus generated some interesting reactions from the left, which I don’t think were sandbagging:

Ezra Klein wrote a compelling piece about Romney and his relationship to data and ideology, that squares with other reports of his professional, political, and managerial personality, arguing that Romney’s ideological slipperiness was misunderstood because it fits poorly in the political sphere:

It’s not so much that Romney lacks a core as that his core can’t readily be mapped by traditional political instruments. As a result, he is free to be opportunistic about the kinds of commitments that people with strong political cores tend to value most.

What Romney values most is something most of us don’t think much about: management. A lifetime of data has proven to him that he’s extraordinarily, even uniquely, good at managing and leading organizations, projects and people. It’s those skills, rather than specific policy ideas, that he sees as his unique contribution. That has been the case everywhere else he has worked, and he assumes it will be the case in the White House, too. When we look at Romney’s career and see a coreless opportunist, we’re just looking at the wrong data.

OK, maybe sometimes it’s coreless opportunism:

Romney burst into national politics as a fierce opponent of Roe v. Wade and gay marriage. His debut was pretty much a disaster. If Romney’s strategy was going to work, it would have to succeed in South Carolina, which has the most socially conservative electorate of the early primary calendar. But his South Carolina team quickly realized that the focus on social conservatism was killing the campaign. “Every time Governor Romney talks about social issues, the flip-flopper accusations have been and will continue to be mentioned,” wrote South Carolina operatives in an extraordinary memo to Beth Myers, Romney’s campaign manager. The memo, quoted by Kranish and Helman in their book, went on to beg the campaign to refocus on economic issues. Romney, they said, had to “be acceptable to the pro-life crowd” to win, but he didn’t need to be its “champion.”

And that’s the Romney that ran in 2012, doing a little two-step around social conservatism.

“Everything could always be tweaked, reshaped, fixed, addressed,” one former aide complained to Kranish and Helman. “It was foreign to him on policy issues that core principles mattered – that somebody would go back and say, ‘Well, three years ago you said this.”’

Romney’s Teflon ideology may have hurt him with John Kass, but it raises the question: would he have done better had he stuck with a particular ideology? If he’d run as a pragmatic centrist to begin with, it’s unlikely he could have survived the primaries. If he’d committed to a conservative ideology, at least for the duration of the 2012 campaign, it would have been a big risk, thanks in large part to demographic change and the culling of the GOP’s diversity (which I wrote about earlier today) that Romney was saddled with as a candidate: “A risk for Mr. Romney, however, is that even with a favorable turnout, the Republican coalition may have become slightly too narrow for him to win, given that the party is struggling with Hispanics and other minority voters.”

It was a concern with women as well: “Mr. Romney has long since abandoned a number of moderate stances he took on social issues as governor of Massachusetts, when he said he supported abortion rights. So long as the ideological gap between the parties grows, the gender gap may grow as well.”

It’s impossible to conjure alternate universes in which Mitt Romney ran as a moderate and a conservative to compare with what happened in 2012. What Klein describes as a core that “can’t readily be mapped by traditional political instruments” is another man’s T-1000 mimetic poly-Romney that fits any vessel it’s poured into. Romney may not have been as liquid as he needed to be this year, but he can’t be blamed that the GOP’s vessel is split in two.

 

Photograph: marcn (CC by 2.0)

Share

Advertisement

Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.

Note: To serve its readers better, Chicago has migrated its comments to Disqus, a popular commenting platform. Please feel free to contact us with any feedback.