Saturday, March 17, 2012
Politically, it has been a rich and confusing cycle. A year ago, speculation was rampant about which of the strong Republican contenders would enter the race for President, and there were many--Mitch Daniels, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour. In the end, we were left with a rather weak field, led by Mitt Romney, who looks good on paper but in the flesh leaves the average Republican voter interested, but for all the wrong reasons. I share with many Republicans two objections to Romney, one which he might have been able to overcome and one which I think will end the prove seriously damaging not only to him personally but also to the Republican Party.
The first is the obvious problem of solving the riddle. As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney governed like a liberal--not perhaps compared with most recent politicians from the state but compared to virtually all Republicans anywhere else. He compromised a great deal and did not fight for conservative principles. Many have explained that governing from the right is not a serious option in Massachusetts, and they may be correct; however, governing from the center or center left doesn't leave one with any serious credentials as a Republican man of experience. The fact is that Romney's political experience would suit a Democrat perfectly--leftish but still reasonable enough to make him palatable to voters in the general election. The lack of a serious conservative record means that what we most want to know about him--whether he will fight the liberals in the Senate for, say, conservative nominees to the Supreme Court--is a serious question. In as polarized a polity as is ours at the present time, we can no longer afford David Souters on the Court. Romney claims that he is conservative, but that claim is belied by his record as Governor. Will he govern as a conservative from the White House? His record makes it impossible to say.
The second problem is the manner in which he runs his campaign. Since his politics are murky, he finds it difficult to run a positive campaign: I still cannot say what exactly Romney stands for, other than general competence (precisely what Michael "this election is not about ideology but about competence" Dukakis ran on in 1988). Neither, apparently, can many other voters, which is why, when the field was larger, week after week, the attitude of anyone but Romney launched Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, Cain, and Santorum to the front of the pack. In contrast with Romney, each of these candidates had a positive message which allowed voters to distinguish between them. And as soon as each of these candidates began to look like a serious contender, Romney began savagely to attack, wounding each of them so badly that they began to falter. To be sure, some of these candidates, like Perry and Cain, also damaged themselves, but Romney ensured that they would not survive the heavy artillery of his negative ads. That is one way to ensure that no one stands in Romney's way, but it will also ensure bad feeling and further lack of trust. Part of the wisdom of Reagan's famous eleventh commandment is that it promotes good feeling within the Party; Romney's destructive, negative campaign does just the opposite. What he did to Gingrich, and Gingrich's immature but natural and thus understandable response, is a perfect example of what such negative campaigning can do.
In the end, Romney is likely to win the nomination. He may even defeat President Obama. If he does so, however, it will be not because anyone likes Romney and is willing to support him because of what he stands for. Rather, it will be because he trashed the other guys. That is not a mandate. As Newt Gingrich showed in the 1990s and Barack Obama more recently, much can be accomplished by a positive campaign. And neither of these men ran simply one-dimensional positive campaigns: both were willing to make clear distinctions between themselves and what they thought was bad policy for the country. But relentlessly negative campaigns don't do that. In Romney's case, trashing the other guy still tells us nothing about Romney--other than that he very, very badly wants to be President. I am not at all convinced that they who want it the most ought to have it.