Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Romney Question

With his campaign suspended and John McCain a virtual lock to be the party's nominee, Mitt Romney has to wonder where he went wrong. He had the money, the looks and a wide-open field. What happened?

The conventional wisdom is simple. There was no William Clark equivalent to issue the edict of "Let Romney be Romney" before the campaign started. A moderate wonky businessman who showed no real interest in social issues turned himself into a paint-by-numbers Republican nominee. A man who checked all of the right boxes, but who lacked real passion.

But would unleashing the "real" Mitt Romney -- the one who ran for governor in 2002 -- have made him into a presidential nominee? It's tempting to say yes. After all, this year's field was so weak that a near-broke candidate who is despised by some conservatives ended up winning the nomination. But the 2002 Romney would have had several disadvantages. He would have never been endorsed by men like James Bopp. Conservative presidential hopefuls dream of his endorsement the way that schoolgirls dream of having Zac Efron take them to the school dance. Robert Bork. Rick Santorum. National Review. These are heavy-hitters in the GOP arsenal. And there is no way that the 2002 Romney would have won them over. He would have been on the wrong side of abortion, gay rights, immigration and probably the war in Iraq.

Romney was trapped. The 2002 Romney would have been seen as Rudy Guiliani without the 9-11 credentials. Both are wonkish executives from the liberal Northeast, but Romney doesn't have Rudy's pugnaciousness that made GOP voters give him some consideration. The 2007-08 Romney lacks John McCain's compelling story, staunch backing of the war and his record of conservative voters to mollify outrage from some quarters. Of all the candidates -- even Barack Obama -- Romney would have benefited the most had the surge completely failed. McCain would have been unelectable -- the surge was his big bet of the campaign -- and GOP voters would have been more willing to bet on a businessman who had nothing to do with the war's creation or execution.

Romney's historical antecedent is Steve Forbes in 2000. Both were businessmen and the sons of Republican scions who were willing to put down large sums of cash to chase the presidency. On an intellectual level, conservatives liked what they had to say. But they could never make that emotional, gut-level connection like Reagan or GW Bush. McCain has been able to make that connection in spite of his intellectual heresies. There are some differences -- Romney had actually been elected to something and doesn't look like Edward Herrmann's slightly retarded younger brother -- but the similarities are striking. Despite checking all of the right boxes, they were never able to convince conservatives that they were one of them.

And barring Romney getting a Cabinet post, I see them having similar post-presidential run lives. Romney will likely spend his retirement serving on some corporate boards, occasionally appearing as a talking head and becoming a player in GOP politics. Forbes carries much more clout in the Republican party now than he ever did as a candidate (kind of a reverse Pat Buchanan). His campaign likely doomed from the start, its the best Romney can hope for.

P.S. I'm sorry my posting has been sporadic lately. I'm in the middle of a project that has been sucking my time away.