Could Romney Have Been a Different Candidate?

Mitt Romney has made a lot of mistakes in this campaign, not all of which came in the last couple of weeks. Now that we've moved into the "Is he doomed?" phase of campaign coverage, the always thoughtful Ron Brownstein wonders if Romney sowed the seeds of his own undoing by the way he ran his primary campaign:

Romney's biggest general-election problem is that he did not believe he could beat a GOP primary field with no competitor more formidable than Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich without tacking sharply right on key issues. Romney repeatedly took policy positions that minimized his risks during the spring but have multiplied his challenges in the fall. His fate isn't sealed, but the choices he made in the primaries have left him with a path to victory so narrow that it might daunt IndianaJones. "To secure the nomination, they made … decisions about immigration, tax cuts, and a whole host of other issues that had no strategic vision," said John Weaver, a senior strategist for John McCain's 2008 campaign. "So he's now trapped demographically and doesn't even seem to understand it."

Of all Romney's primary-season decisions, the most damaging was his choice to repel the challenges from Perry and Gingrich by attacking them from the right—and using immigration as his cudgel. That process led Romney to embrace a succession of edgy, conservative positions anathema to many Hispanics, including denouncing Texas for providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants; praising Arizona's immigration-enforcement law; and, above all, promising to make life so difficult for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants that they would "self-deport." Although Romney this week tried to soften his tone, polls show Obama attracting at least the 67 percent of Latinos that he attracted in 2008, despite Hispanics' double-digit unemployment. Weaver, like other GOP strategists, worries that Romney has placed the GOP "on the precipice" of losing Hispanics for a generation.

There are two questions this raises. The first is whether Mitt would have been able to win the nomination if he had run as more of a moderate. The second is whether, if he had, he'd be in a better position than he is now. Although Brownstein doesn't say so outright, the implication of his piece is that the answer to the first question is possibly no, while the answer to the second question is probably yes. My own view is exactly the opposite.

Romney did plenty of genuflecting to conservatives during the primaries, but the truth is conservatives never bought it. They just decided that despite their reservations, he was their best shot at unseating Barack Obama. Look at health care, the issue that was supposed to be Romney's undoing. He never gave even a remotely plausible answer as to how Romneycare differed from Obamacare, but in the end conservatives decided they could live with it because there was no good alternative. Look at the collection of nincompoops Romney overcame. Michele Bachmann? Rick Perry? Herman Cain? Newt Gingrich? Rick Santorum? Please. The choice for primary voters was always clear: Mitt Romney and a chance to win, or another candidate who would lose by 20 points. It was no choice at all, and they knew it.

As to the question of whether a little more moderation would have put him in a different place now, I doubt it. Let's take immigration. If Romney had left the issue alone he'd probably be in much the same position with Latinos that he's in now. His problem isn't that Latinos don't trust Mitt Romney, it's that they don't trust Republicans. Romney could have sat out the immigrant-bashing and it still would have reminded those voters that the GOP doesn't much like them. Romney's enthusiastic participation didn't help him, but let's remember that John McCain was at best a reluctant participant in the same ritual four years ago, and as Brownstein mentions, he lost Latinos by over 30 points.

Sure, he's given the Obama campaign ammunition on policy. But their argument has always been based primarily in who he is, with the things he wants to do as supporting evidence. He could have tweaked his tax plan to give more benefits to those lower down the economic scale, and they'd still be saying he's a heartless corporate raider who cares only about money and isn't concerned about ordinary people. And it would still be working, because let's be frank, that's kind of who he is.

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