Monday, September 17, 2012

An Early Romney Campaign Autopsy

Conservatives and Romney campaign insiders are fudging the truth about why Romney is losing

Politico published the kind of piece that every campaign dreads before an election: a finger-pointing, off-the-record pre-postmortem filled with criticisms by staff and advisers about why a candidate is losing.

This particular story seems to shift most of the blame to Mitt Romney's top strategist, Stuart Stevens, and the rest to Romney himself. My take is that neither Romney nor his top strategist are totally to blame, although obviously both share in it. I agree with the general sentiment that Romney is just not a great candidate. But as Ezra Klein and others have noted, the false narrative in the media, that due to the poor economy it was really Romney's race to lose, overinflated expectations from the beginning. I recall many delusional Republicans last year proclaiming that any candidate with a pulse would beat Obama so they wanted to nominate the most conservative candidate possible. The bottom line is that no matter what the unemployment rate is, as long as the rate is roughly the same or decreasing leading up to the election and the economy is growing every quarter, the incumbent is the favorite to win, not the challenger.

In short, before 2009 Romney seemed like a reasonable competent technocrat. And now he is forced to lead a party at exactly the wrong time for someone with his resume. The id of the party the last few years has been Donald Trump (Birthers), Sarah Palin (anti-elites), Ron Paul (Libertarians), and the Tea Party wings. Only these people or someone from these groups would have excited the base of the party. But the elite establishment in the party understood that any candidate associated with those groups would have no chance of winning over swing voters in the general election. And Romney was the most electable alternative.

However, Romney was handcuffed coming into this race, as any recent Republican governor of a blue or purple state would have been. The party has moved so far to the right in just the last 4 years that any Republican governor who actually had to make moderate compromises to, you know, govern was going to have a really difficult time talking about his accomplishments without depressing the enthusiasm of the base. What were mainstream conservative positions just a few years ago are now poison because Obama and the Democrats supported them. Remember this is the party that is suddenly too conservative for "lefties" like Robert Bennett and Richard Lugar.

The base was always more energized about beating Obama than about voting for Romney or any of the candidates who were running in the primary. So add in some bigotry toward Romney's Mormonism and his inconsistent positions on social issues, and it was obvious a segment of the base was going to be ambivalent towards him. And many of the swing "white working class" voters, in the Rust Belt in particular, were never going to warm to him because of his record at Bain Capital. So in the middle of September Romney is still trying to shore up and energize the base, unable to move far enough to the center for fear of losing the base.

I'm sympathetic to Romney's plight in this campaign. Don't get me wrong - I view him as a complete phony and I've disliked the blatant dishonesty that has been at the core of Romney's arguments. But gaffes aside, given where the Republican party is now, the demands on the candidate to hew to the party line on everything, Romney's own personal appeal problems, and the limits placed on what parts of Romney's bio he allowed his campaign to trumpet, all in all I think the campaign has done about as well as you could have hoped.

Conservatives dumping on the Romney campaign are doing so to explain why Romney is losing in a way that validates their worldview. The reality is that Republican agenda is not all that popular with the public. The party brand is still damaged from the Bush presidency and generally polls confirm that voters prefer the specifics of the Democrats' plans to the Republicans' plans on nearly every issue of importance. You wouldn't know that if you got your news from the Right-wing media bubble, but with the exception of the "deficit", voters give Obama/Democrats more trust and support on every single issue that matters. Obama is even beating Romney on the economy at the moment.

Romney himself may not be trusted as a true conservative by the base, but make no mistake - his campaign and his economic plan are the most conservative in years. Romney has been forced to take a very hard line on social issues. And his economic plan is the most conservative in decades. As noted during the DNC, Romney's campaign is ultimately Bush's economic plan, Cheney's foreign policy, and Santorum's views on social issues. It's a combination of all of the unpopular things the Republican party has advocated over the last decade with a flip-flopping Gordon Gekko as the chief messenger. And people are surprised he's trailing?

The Fox, Limbaugh, Hannity, etc., nexus will inevitably spin a Romney loss as a result of him not being conservative enough or not communicating the specifics of those swell conservative plans well enough. They haven't come to grips with the possibility that their ideas just aren't that popular right now. Romney has acquiesced to every demand of the far right and even put golden boy Paul Ryan on the ticket, yet somehow he's not being conservative enough to much of the base?

This was an election that was always going to be much more difficult for Republicans to win than they had anticipated. And the selection of Romney as the candidate made it nearly impossible to run a coherent campaign that could also appeal to swing voters. It is not the fault of the campaign, it's the fault of this particular candidate and the cynicism of the party that made it so difficult for the candidate to be himself. After four years of obstruction and incoherence on policy, Mitt Romney is without a doubt the candidate the party deserves. He might even be the candidate they need too if it results in a decisive Electoral College loss as well as the loss of the House majority.

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