Mitt Romney has devoted most of the last six years to running for president. He’s spent untold millions of dollars, competed in dozens of primaries and caucuses, and given hundreds of speeches before conservative audiences.
But, as every political analyst has observed, Romney still hasn’t won over conservative voters, the base of the party he seeks to lead, or in any way convinced them he’s the “severe” conservative he insists he is.
He may still be able to do so. Unfortunately, in the span of two days last week Romney reinforced conservatives’ worst fears about him on two of the issues his campaign will need to master in order to win in November.
“It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” he told reporters in Michigan on Tuesday. “We’ve seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are accusatory and attacking President Obama that you’re going to jump up in the polls. You know, I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am.”
Romney’s statement exasperated many conservatives concerned that Romney would approach the general election against Obama much as John McCain did in 2008. Knowing that any criticism of Barack Obama would invite indignant protest from the left and accusations of racism, McCain refused to attack Obama on the issues which would have hurt him most, including Obama’s relationship with anti-Semitic pastor Jeremiah Wright. McCain’s unwillingness to take the gloves off may have cost him the election.
Of course, the Romney campaign has at times been willing to lay into his Republican primary opponents. They devoted millions of dollars to hard-hitting ads against both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. And there is evidence that the ads helped him win the Florida and Michigan primaries. After going negative against his Republican rivals, why would Romney now hint at a softer, kinder approach to Obama?
Romney’s inability to excite conservatives isn’t related to his unwillingness to “light my hair on fire” but rather to a suspicion that he will abandon them at the first convenient opportunity. Conservatives take Romney’s “I am who I am” to mean that, if he wins the nomination, he will quickly move to the center, tone down his rhetoric, run a timid campaign, and lose. Conservatives have seen that movie before.
On Wednesday a reporter asked Romney if he supports the Blunt Amendment, a bill Republicans in the Senate tried to use to override the Obama HHS contraceptive mandate. “I’m not for the bill,” Romney said about the legislation, which failed to pass in the Senate but had broad support among conservatives. “[T]he idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I’m not going there.”
Romney’s answer produced a sharp backlash from conservatives, and Romney quickly reversed his position. “Of course I support the Blunt amendment,” he later said, insisting he had misunderstood the reporter’s question.
I’ll take him at his word, but I wonder if Romney would have changed his position if he were not still slugging it out in a tough GOP primary battle.
With his history of ideological migration, it would be wise for the Governor to do everything he can to reassure conservatives, not alienate them.
Obama’s contraceptive mandate is a gift to the GOP, an unconstitutional abuse of state power and an assault on religious liberty. Romney should make its reversal a major theme of his campaign, if for no other reason than to allay lingering conservative fears that he is unreliable on values issues. At this point, many conservatives assume “I’m not going there” will be Romney’s response to any opportunity to expose Obama’s social policy radicalism.
Social issues have been an asset for Republicans in every election in recent memory. Since the emergence of social issues in the late 1960s, the Republican Party has won seven out of 10 presidential elections, including George W. Bush’s narrow 2004 victory, in which state marriage amendment referenda may have made the difference.
Republicans don’t need a perfect candidate to defeat a dazed and diminished President Obama. But they need a nominee who at least understands that he can’t win by focusing solely on an economy that’s showing signs of improvement. I’m not arguing that the election should focus primarily on social issues. But to take them off the table would be a mistake.
A poll published late last week indicated that Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats about voting for president. The USA Today/Gallup poll found Republicans with a 53 percent to 45 percent enthusiasm gap.
Republicans’ enthusiasm advantage will vanish, and with it their hopes of defeating Obama, if their nominee runs a toothless campaign that surrenders the issues on which Obama is most vulnerable.