The good news for Mitt Romney is that the Republican presidential primaries are effectively over; with his decisive win in Wisconsin—and his victories in Maryland and Washington, D.C.—he has established himself as the presumptive nominee. To wit, his victory speech was light on red meat, and heavy on his critique of the Obama administration, with a new variation on his claim that the president sought a society of equal results:
“The president has pledged to ‘transform America,’ and he has spent the last four years laying the foundation for a new government-centered society,” Romney said in Wisconsin. “I will spend the next four years rebuilding the foundation of our Opportunity Society, led by free people and free enterprises.”
I have no insight as to whether this message will appeal to independent voters. But because it runs counter to observable reality, my hunch is that it has limited utility. What’s more important is the fact that Romney has made an explicit turn away from the economy in his attacks on the president. Yes, he continues to say that Obama burdened the economy and made the recovery worse than otherwise, and yes, he continues to cite his private sector career as ideal experience for leading the nation toward job creation.
But this is as lukewarm as President Obama’s previous insistence—in the face of sluggish growth—that he kept the country out of a Great Depression. Voters only want to know if the economy is getting better; few people care about the hypothetical of what would have happened, even if it’s a fair point.
For Romney to move in this direction is for him to concede that there’s no use in making a forward attack on Obama’s economic stewardship, given the extent to which the president will be fighting in more favorable territory. The problem for Romney is that he isn’t very convincing as a right-wing warrior for “freedom.” In his words and mannerisms, he can’t help but come across as a cold-blooded conservative technocrat. Indeed, this was always the danger for Romney; if the economy improves to the point where voters are satisfied, then there’s no compelling reason to vote for the former Massachusetts governor outside of the fact that he’s wholesome, handsome, and wears a suit well.
Of course, there’s still plenty of time for conditions to tilt in Romney’s favor, in which case, he can return to the economy as his defining issue. And if the Affordable Care Act is overturned by the Supreme Court, he can run as a commited “constitutional conservative,” whose policies won’t violate the ideas of our Founders. But, perennial liberal panic aside, those are two substantial “ifs.” It’s just as likely that we reach October with small but measurable improvement in the status quo, in which case, Romney will wish that he had something besides competence to fall back on.