Yesterday, at The Washington Post, Ezra Klein argued that Mitt Romney is a much stronger general election candidate than he might look at first glance. As Klein points out, there’s no way that a moderate governor of Massachusetts wins the nomination in a red-blooded GOP without some political skill. Moreover, Romney’s big weakness in the primary—his record for centrism—could become an asset in the fall; it gives him a place from which he can appeal to moderate and independent voters. And above all else, Klein notes, is the fact that external factors—the economy, or foreign policy—could take their toll on Obama and elevate Romney to the White House.
On each count, I’m skeptical. For starters, I’m not sure that Romney won the nomination as much as it is that Republicans resigned themselves to Romney’s candidacy, and organized around him once it became clear that there were no other alternatives. As it stands, Romney took real damage from Rick Santorum, a failed former senator who ran a shoestring campaign, and came away with the second place spot. If Romney had faced a credible challenger with substantial resources, there’s a fair chance that Republicans would have gone elsewhere for their nominee.
What’s more, even if you take the view that Romney convinced Republicans to support him, it’s not as if he offered the GOP a particular or compelling vision of the future; by and large, he has presented himself as a cipher whose views are subordinate to his loyalty. Given a choice between this, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry, it’s no surprise that Romney came out on top.
If this is the case, there’s no way that Romney can lean on his moderate record; he’ll need to do as much as he can to show Republicans that he is committed to the cause. Klein suggests that he could show daring by putting Paul Ryan on the ticket, but to me, that’s a sign of weakness—to run with the author of the most radical budget proposal in years, and to present it as a vision for the future, is to give yourself completely to the right-most pole of the Republican Party, in the hope that they’ll stay on your side. By contrast, a nominee who didn’t have to worry about energizing his base would be free to put a moderate on the ticket.
But regardless of what Romney does, we can’t forget that the Obama campaign will be working overtime to tie the former governor to the far right of is party, and prevent him from making a pivot to the center. And that’s in addition to the fact that they’ll also work to paint him as a liar (see the latest campaign video) and an ally of the GOP’s anti-birth control ideologues.
Right now, Mitt Romney has the highest disapproval ratings of any presidential candidate in recent history. He’s 14 points behind Obama with independent women in swing states, nearly 60 points behind among Latinos nationwide, and he’s still clawing for the confidence of conservative voters. He has committed to a right-wing budget of deep cuts to social spending, and he will have to defend huge tax cuts for the rich, at the same time that he has to answer for his massive wealth and conspicuously low tax rates.
Yes, he’ll pick up steam in the fall, and yes, he’ll improve his standing with independents and other groups. What’s more, the two-party system means that Romney will always have a chance at winning, even if he’s behind. Still, even with those handicaps, I’m not sure how you can look Romney and come away with the view that he’s “strong.” Adequate? Yes. But nothing more than that.