Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Is Mitt Romney Really the Republican Frontrunner?

Despite the fact that no candidate has officially entered the race for the Republican nomination for President, some commentators and party insiders are anointing Mitt Romney as the front-runner. I am surprised that anyone thinks there is a frontrunner in the Republican race, or if there is, why it is Romney.

Romney’s only advantage that I can think of his is his ability to dip into his substantial pockets. This means he will be able to run plenty of ads and build a strong organization. But there are other plausible Republicans who can raise lots of money such as Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, and Newt Gingrich. So the ability to raise money does not really set Romney apart. Neither do his management credentials. Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels can claim to have cut their state’s spending and made government more responsive and efficient.

Contrast this with the several disadvantages Romney has. Perhaps the biggest was his support of a healthcare scheme in Massachusetts that had an individual mandate. In a way, Romney’s fate is tied to the popularity of Obamacare, which is currently low among Republicans and independents. At several points in the campaign, Romney will be forced to defend or repudiate his law. This becomes even tougher when court decisions are added in. When decisions come out claiming that the mandate is unconstitutional. Romney will be asked point blank “do you think Obamacare’s mandate is constitutional.” If he says no, he will be at odds with the tea party grassroots of his party. If he says “yes,” the inevitable follow up question would be why he ever supported a law that was unconstitutional.

He will no doubt promise to appoint conservative “strict-constructionist judges” of the sort who will be most likely to find the mandate unconstitutional. How can he square his support for judges whose rulings will bring about more limited government with his support for a healthcare plan that can be described as anything but limited government?

He can change positions and reinforce his image as a slick politician or continue supporting the law and run afoul of movement conservatives. Romney’s healthcare plan alone poses several challenges to his candidacy. If he is lucky enough to make it to the general election, one of the Republicans’ most potent issues will be nullified. It is easy to see Obama saying “When considering how to reform healthcare, I looked at a lot of different models. I thought yours was the best.”

Then there are his flip-flops on social issues. Romney was pro-choice before he was pro-life. He was pro-gay rights before he was against them. These changes of heart—however genuine they might be—will always cause the evangelicals who dominate the Iowa caucus and South Carolina primary to wonder if Romney is really one of them. This problem is only compounded by Romney’s Mormonism which some of these voters consider a cult.

Romney cannot contend that he is uniquely electable. Even though he was Governor of Massachusetts, he neither sought nor won a second term. During the Democratic wave year of 2006, there is a good chance that he in fact would have lost. Few remember that when he decided not to run, he had a scant 34% approval rating and that he trailed potential Democratic rivals in polls. It is hard to see Romney delivering Massachusetts to Republicans or any other state in the northeast for that matter.

During the 2008 primaries, Romney struggled with working class voters. This was for any number of reasons: his flip-flops, a high net worth that made it hard for the average American to relate, and a communication style at times more suited to a Wall Street boardroom than the campaign trail. These working class voters will likely be swing voters in 2012 assuming that the economy has improved somewhat but still has a ways to go. Wouldn’t a Tim Pawlenty or Mike Huckabee be better positioned to do well with those voters?

Romney may well be the frontrunner now. If he is, then his road will be the toughest any frontrunner has faced in sometime.

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