Romney Is More Electable
THE legendary football manager Bill Shankly once summed up what Mitt Romney must have felt after February 28’s watershed Republican primary contest in Michigan. “If you are first you are first,” Shankly reflected. “If you are second you are nothing.” Romney’s wins in Michigan and Arizona this week do not mean that the 2012 Republican presidential nomination is now inevitably his. But they make it all but certain. Any defeat in Romney’s home state of Michigan would have energised the next rounds of the contest, especially the Super Tuesday primaries next week, of which Ohio is the most important. The race might have gone all the way to California in June. All that is now highly unlikely.
But Romney’s struggles in Michigan matter. The close win over Rick Santorum - 41 percent-38 percent - is a reminder that he has not yet managed to sell his candidacy to the Republican party. More voters have voted against Romney than for him in all this season’s contests bar one (Romney’s 50.2 percent win in Nevada). I’d take a bet the same thing will happen when Super Tuesday is totted up. Romney is likely to be the Republican candidate. But he is not the choice of most Republicans.
By any modern professional-campaign standards, Romney ran a sloppy contest in Michigan. The multimillionaire’s comment that his wife, Ann, drives “a couple of Cadillacs” will haunt him all the way to November, while his repeated assertion that Michigan’s trees are the right height was downright weird. There is little evidence that Romney is connecting better with his party’s voters, and increasing evidence that he sees them with something close to contempt.
Even today, his two main advantages are tactical rather than strategic. The first is that, as a very rich man who has been in the race from the start, he is the overwhelming beneficiary of the explosion of Super PAC campaign funding that means American elections are now, more than ever, about the survival of the fattest chequebook.
He has also been blessed by the fallibility of and divisions among his many opponents - well described by the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg as “a kick line of clowns, knaves and zealots” - who have often appealed more to the party’s conservative base.
The primaries have exposed a strange paradox about Republican attempts to recapture the White House from its manifestly vulnerable Democratic incumbent. We can all think of examples of political parties that have found themselves led by candidates in whom they actually have little confidence. Yet how is it that this Republican party, whose views have increasingly become marked by a dark and dystopian revulsion against all government - “the new apocalypticism” in the words of the political scientist Mark Lilla - should be about to confer its temporary leadership on the one candidate in the field who, insofar as his views are clear about anything, appears to share fewer of these passions than any of his rivals? To answer properly requires care.
Romney’s money is certainly part of the explanation. So is the crackpot factor among his divided rivals. Santorum, the last of the anyone-but-Romney contenders, not only called Obama a “snob” for wanting more young people to go to university. He also thinks Satan is alive and well and living in Washington. But there is more to it than this.
The obvious answer would be that the Republicans have not, after all, lost the instinct for electability they so often seem ready to abandon. Perhaps Republicans still know they must appeal to the centre ground, to independents and disaffected blue-collar Democrats who have intermittently rallied behind the conservative project ever since the days of Nixon and Reagan. Therefore, the theory runs, enough of them recognise the need to choose a candidate with wider appeal, like Romney.
There’s something in this. The third memorable remark Romney made in Michigan was that he would not be setting fire to his hair to win votes. That, plus his new determination to turn the campaign away from the social issues so beloved of conservatives towards the state of the economy, suggests Romney lives in a more familiar political world.
There are three large snags with this view. The first is that much of the Republican party has not suddenly rediscovered centre-ground politics. It remains, when you strip out all the wackiness, the fired-up anti-government party whose members are pledged never to increase personal or corporate taxes; whose first reaction on taking power in Congress in 2010 was to dismantle, not strengthen, the financial regulatory system on Wall Street; and whose presidential nomination candidates have fallen over themselves to abolish agencies, cut programmes and weaken laws.
The second is that, for all his many policy flip-flops, Romney stands decisively inside this consensus, not outside it. The man who said recently that he likes “being able to fire people” proposes tax cuts that are three times the size of those passed by George Bush in 2001, and aims to cut at least 14 percent from every domestic spending programme - not in order to reduce the government deficit, in the way that the UK coalition justified its cuts in 2010, but in order to increase it, by $600 billion.
And the third problem is that, perhaps partly for these very reasons, Romney is not in fact proving as attractive to centre-ground or swing voters as the Romney-the-moderate thesis requires. In Michigan, a swing state, Romney and Santorum shared the independent vote almost equally, while Santorum comfortably outpolled Romney among blue-collar and unionised voters.
Judged by Michigan, the Republicans are about to anoint a candidate whose main problem is less his views - very much those of the rich anti-government right - than his wider electability.
Obama remains the favourite. Yet this is clearly an election the Republicans can win. In an era when incumbents tend to lose elections, in a country still apparently shifting to the right, and bearing in mind what the Republicans did to the Democrats in 2010, it would be premature to assume that Romney cannot capture America’s ultimate political prize.