Mitt Romney: Before the Debate, a House Divided

Where’s the pragmatic, capable, problem-solving Romney who was governor of Massachusetts, and whom many associates have vouched for? And can he re-emerge tomorrow night?

Mitt Romney

 

My colleague Carol Felsenthal spoke with Edward Lipson Charles Lipson, a polisci prof at the U. of C., to get advice on how Mitt Romney can save his campaign—on the shoals but not yet shipwrecked—at the debates. It’s sold advice from someone who’s a supporter but not a “surrogate” of Romney, mostly focusing on the candidate’s need to narrow down, expand, and organize his messaging on the economy and related domestic issues. Lipson thinks Romney’s gotten a raw deal from the press, and curiously enough he’s got a backer in Romney-hater John Cook of Gawker (and formerly of the Tribune). Like Cook, I think it’s less ideological than that Romney provides a lot of chum:

Many of the reporters, producers, and editors managing coverage of the political campaign may be culturally or politically liberal, but their first allegiance isn’t to the Revolution. It’s to the Story. And the Story So Far of this campaign is that Romney is a hapless, robotic, buffoon who insists on repeatedly detonating his campaign in an escalating series of Inspector Clouseau disasters.

The press is doing to Romney the same thing it did to John Kerry, and to Al Gore before him: Covering him as a loser. A weird loser.

Lipson would have Romney circumvent his flailing handlers to become “more affirmative and more aggressive,” and perhaps it would make Romney less of a barn-door-sized target and change the narrative. Per Lipson’s advice, he even got a bit specific on his tax policies, just after Paul Ryan got shredded on Fox News (!) for protecting the electorate from the campaign’s math.

But I wonder how much of that narrative makes it through to people who aren’t constantly immersed in the media stream. Something else Lipson said is suggestive of a broader problem for Romney, his supporters, and his party, so much so that it distracted me from the rest of his advice:

[H]e’s voting for Romney.He emphasized that he’s no Romney surrogate and is liberal on social issues (he would not have voted for, say, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum). “People who have a harsh and distrusting attitude toward gays and the like, I just find that repulsive and I disagree with that sharply,” Lipson said.

It’s a heck of a caveat to have to make, but it’s indicative of a divide within the GOP. Many Republicans are trying not to alienate voters like Lipson by soft-pedaling “values,” as the Romney campaign has done for most of the election cycle, except when it hasn’t:

Another Romney adviser said the governor would spend just enough time on social issues to dispatch Santorum and then move on.

“He’s going to pivot back,” the adviser said. “He’s not going to go far from the core set of Romney issues, which is economic turnaround, recovery, jobs.”

[snip]

The first significant sign of the retooled Romney message — at least temporarily — came during his speech last Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference, which was marked by his ad-lib calling his record as governor “severely conservative.”

The “severely conservative” Romney of the campaign trail is at odds with the prudent, analytical governor that a lot of us expected him to be as a candidate. Take, for instance, Romney’s program that provided free cars to welfare recipients—to an electorate that seizes on things like the “Obamaphone” it might sound like a socialist boondoggle, but it was meant to save money, the idea being that getting someone a cheap car and short-term insurance in order to work long enough to get off welfare is ultimately cheaper than having someone bounce on and off the dole. Jon Gruber, the MIT economist who helped Romney implement his state health care plan, wonders where that Romney went:

The meeting was Romney fighting with his political advisors. They were saying, ‘Don’t do this,’ and Romney was saying that, no, it was the right thing to do. He was approaching it like an engineer, you know? He was saying, ‘How can we make this work?’ What was impressive was that he really wanted to solve a problem in the way that you’d hope a politician would try to solve a problem. He wanted to do the right thing, which is all I ever want from a politician. He was excited to do the right thing.

Watching Romney flee from Romneycare was painful for Gruber (“he looks like an idiot"). Nicholas Lehmann, an outstanding journalist who recently published a compelling biographical profile of Romney for the New Yorker, actually feels bad for Romney and his inability to pull his campaign together.

It’s like Jaws: the smell of blood, a glimpse of flailing limbs, a sense of impending doom. And there’s evidence that it’s killing him not just among the social-liberal Republican elite, as predicted by Thomas Schaller a few years ago.

Southern conservatives’ attitudes towards other races, homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex, school prayer, and women in the workforce, are far more deeply entrenched and pervasive than those of conservatives in any other part of the country. Further, these moral attitudes are “gateway” issues. A candidate’s views on economic issues will not be considered until he has passed this moral test. Therefore, Schaller argued, democrats needed to finally let go of dreams of the old New Deal coalition, and target the inner (mountain) West instead.

The validity of Schaller’s argument as to the uniqueness of Southern working class attitudes was evident in polling results published just several weeks ago. While Obama is losing to Romney among the white working class as a whole nationwide, this is because the white working class in the rest of the country is about evenly split between Romney and Obama. The white working class in the South favors Romney by a 40 point margin!

That’s why Lipson’s caveat struck me. The Romney he’s voting for, the practical, problem-solving one that reasonable and seemingly trustworthy people have said actually exists, wasn’t able to run in 2012. If you’re a polisci prof like Lipson, familiar with the candidate and his biography, it’s a plausible leap. If not, he’s harder to separate from the part of his base that “repulses” such voters. If Lipson’s right, Romney will stop running from himself. If not, the press will keep chasing him, following the trail of blood.

 

Photograph: Tobyotter (CC by 2.0)

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