Mitt Romney’s back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire reveal two discouraging facts. The first is that this year’s field of Republican candidates is unusually weak. The second is that the weakness of this field has created the impression that Romney himself is only marginally less weak a candidate than the others.
Actually, Mitt Romney is a stronger candidate than he appears. He has simply chosen to run a particularly weak campaign. Romney’s pitch for the presidency, fiercely dependent on the month-to-month fortunes of the economy, is that his time in the private sector supplied him with the can-do attitude and the ability to create jobs that Barack Obama lacks. Obama is the portrait of weakness, Romney the portrait of vitality. That’s all, folks.
It’s a campaign message calculated above all to get Mitt through primary season. The vague themes, hinging on the dangerously specific claim to create jobs, allowed him to secure a base of support just large enough to float atop the pack and wait for the crowded, underperforming field below to take care of itself.
In a way, that’s happened quite according to plan. Romney is about as well-positioned as a candidate can be for a knockout blow in South Carolina and a coronation in Florida.
Yet, at the same time, the strategy has been a disaster. Romney’s decision to run a general election campaign in a hotly contested primary has led conservatives to conclude that the weakness of his pitch is inseparable from his candidacy. As in 2008, they fear, they’ll be stuck with a candidate who’s not only ideologically out of step but incapable of defeating his Democratic opponent.
Hopes can be hung, as they were with McCain, on a compensatory hawkishness in foreign policy, or a running mate chosen to pump life into the base. But the problem remains — worse now than in ’08, when Obama lacked the electoral benefits of incumbency: conservatives are convinced that the Romney campaign they see is the one they’re going to get, and it’s riddled with serious problems. The attacks leveled by Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry against Mitt’s time at Bain strike right at the core of Romney’s campaign logic. Instead of a job creator, they say, Mitt is a job destroyer. Instead of Mr. Vitality, he’s Mr. Vampire Squid, drawing his strength from the lifeblood of our economy.
That’s a shabby attack, but it’s more effective than Gingrich’s and Perry’s dwindling fortunes would suggest, and conservatives know it. It’s just too easy to paint Romney as a twenty-first-century robber baron — not because that’s who he really is, but because that’s the caricature his campaign invites his opponents to make. The logic of Romney’s pitch for president makes him far too susceptible to being transformed into his own evil twin.
He needs a better pitch — and fast. But conservatives (and perhaps others) have come to believe there won’t be one, because there can’t be.
This is where they’re wrong. There’s a new campaign logic hiding in plain sight, just waiting for Romney to pick it up and run it to the end zone. It draws a sharp, damaging contrast with Barack Obama. It appeals to conservatives at the level of first principles and contemporary concerns. And it does all this without rehashing past Republican glories in a way that seems stale, rote or uninspired.