Saturday, June 2, 2012

Give Romney His Due

Amid poor news on the economic front and Donald Trump’s “birther” comments, it has been little noted that Mitt Romney officially won enough delegates to claim his party’s nomination for President. In so doing, he made history as the first Mormon nominee for President of a major party.

I freely admit that I am surprised to see him doing so well as I had expressed some skepticism about his chances on this blog. At the outset of the 2012 primaries, I thought that Romney possessed few if any of the qualities of someone who would claim a major party nomination or contend so seriously for the presidency. For starters, Romney did not seem to offer a unique, compelling vision in the way that Bill Clinton did as a new Democrat in 1992 or Ronald Reagan did as the leader of the conservative movement did in 1980.

The absence of such a vision meant that his greatest claim on the nomination lay in his perceived competence and electability. But as I have written before, Romney’s term as Governor was not particularly compelling. There were not great strides made in education or economic development. Perhaps his biggest achievement was one he was particularly reticent to discuss on the campaign trail: Romneycare.

I also found fault with the idea that he was particularly electable. The logic behind this claim must be appealing for Republicans. He had managed to win the governorship in a state that reliably votes for Democrats at the national level in 2002. But what is not often mentioned is that when he was leaving office in 2006, he was polling poorly enough that there would have been a distinct possibility of him losing had he run for reelection.  The handful of electoral surveys shows Obama in a comfortable position in the state. The case for electability then rests not on his ability to bring along his home state or indeed any state in New England save perhaps for New Hampshire. The case rests on the idea that Romney will play well with moderate and independent voters in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Now it is true that Romney was the most electable Republican of those running in the primaries. But that does not say much given how unelectable much of his competition was. Herman Cain made his name on the much ridiculed 9-9-9 tax plan (remember that?) and then dropped out amid allegations of inappropriate sexual advances. Rick Perry struggled to remember which departments he wanted to eliminate. Newt Gingrich carried more personal baggage than the other candidates combined. Rick Santorum managed to reignite a debate about contraception, one struggle in the culture war that conservatives have little hope of prevailing on. I could go on.

Romney is polling well against Obama but the question now is, who wouldn’t be assuming he were a credible candidate? The economy is adding jobs at an anemic pace and has voters worried. The federal government had its credit downgraded. There is a very real chance that President Obama’s signature accomplishment (Obamacare) might be declared unconstitutional in the coming weeks.

That Romney won the nomination was due in some measure to luck, but it also reflects positively on his character. He has been dogged in pursuing the Republican nomination since at least 2005. He overcame the inevitable disappointment of coming up short in 2008 to refine his message and run a tighter, more disciplined campaign this time around.  In winning in Massachusetts in 2002 and clinching the nomination this year he managed to successfully win with two very different electorates: moderate New England Republicans in 2002 and disproportionately Southern and Western tea party conservatives in 2012.

Whatever else you think of Romney, give the man his props. And Democrats, take note. A man who is this persistent and skilled—and yes lucky—has a very real shot at winning in November.

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