How Mitt Romney can win over conservatives

James Poulos Daily Caller Columnist
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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.

My fellow Americans, Romney should say, I’m running for president so America can have a president again. Not a savior, not a dear leader, not an all-seeing, all-knowing overlord. Not a man so arrogant and controlling that there’s nowhere he won’t extend the arbitrary power of the White House, the executive branch and the federal government’s vast regulatory state.

Barack Obama has exercised power over everything he’s laid his eye on. And with every failure of policy, he’s extended it even further. Ramming through Obamacare, with its unaccountable, unelected IPAB, he’s added insult to injury by picking favorites and granting hand-picked waivers — showering them on Nancy Pelosi’s district. Playing Chicago machine politics like the best of them, he’s made outrageous and unconstitutional recess appointments to advance the interest of corrupt big labor bosses — themselves implacably opposed to free and regular union elections conducted by secret ballot. He’s stolen a march on civil liberties. He favors our military’s fleet of drones not because he knows how to keep America safe, but because he wants to cut others out of the decision-making process.

Report after report indicates that, personally, the president holds himself aloof from Congress and even some of his own staff. During his brief time in the Senate, he never bothered to build the close relationships that would have served him — and America — so well. He doesn’t care about those kinds of relationships. He’s a world unto himself. And as president, he’s acted like it, far exceeding the bounds of his traditional and legal authority. There is no issue where he favors reducing executive power.

The roots of America’s greatness have never been found in the aggrandizement of an imperial presidency. The view of the president as a king, a boss or a dictator is at odds with our deep understanding of the equality of all human beings and the promise of liberty.

Barack Obama wants to tar me as some kind of Lex Luthor. Well, Mr. President, let me tell you: you’re no Superman. You can’t see that yourself, because you’re blinded by your own power. Your attempt to rule our country like a Leviathan has also failed, but you can’t see that, either. I won’t let either of those things happen on my watch. I’m more proud of my country than I am of myself. I won’t let you use the tough times we’re in as an excuse to deliver our country over to tyranny. America deserves better.

That’s why I’m challenging you for the White House, Mr. President — to ensure we still have a president, and not an American Caesar.

James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.