Mitt Romney Feels the Illinois

If you’re the kind of person who has followed the Republican presidential primaries since the beginning, then it’s fair to say that things are a little boring right now. For all of his good fortune, Rick Santorum hasn’t been able to translate his wins into support from the GOP, and for all of his ups and downs, Mitt Romney hasn’t actually lost the position he reached at the end of January, when he won big in the Florida primary. Romney is still the presumptive nominee, and his big win in Illinois—51 percent to 31 percent for Santorum—will strengthen his path to the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.

But, delegates aside, the most important thing to come out of the Illinois primary was Mitt Romney’s new message. For as long as Romney has been on the trail, his message has centered on jobs, with constant attacks on the president’s job-creation record and a campaign that has highlighted his private-sector experience as a blueprint for creating job growth as president. There’s a reason for this; incumbent presidents rarely lose re-election, and when they do, it’s because voters are dissatisfied with external conditions. Attacking the president on jobs is the classic strategy for a challenger in a sluggish economy, and Romney was banking on this to take him to the White House.

Of course, that was before conditions began to improve. In the last three months, the economy has created more than 600,000 jobs. While this trend is great for the country, it’s terrible for Romney’s campaign. Without jobs, Romney doesn’t have much to lean on. Unlike Newt Gingrich, he can’t bank on aggressive resentment, and unlike Rick Santorum, he doesn’t play a convincing social conservative. But he is a “conservative businessman” (his words), which makes him a perfect vector for that old standby of conservative rhetoric—economic freedom.

And so, in a speech at the University of Chicago yesterday, the former Massachusetts governor unveiled a new message:

For three years, President Obama has expanded government instead of empowering the American people. He’s put us deeper in debt. He’s slowed the recovery and harmed our economy. And he has attacked the cornerstone of American prosperity: our economic freedom.

Indeed, he continued on this path in his victory speech last night, with a fairly lengthy description of how President Obama has diminished economic freedom:

The American economy is fueled by freedom. Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty. It is the only principle that has ever created sustained prosperity. But, over the last three years, this administration has been engaged in an assault on our freedom.

This pivot is a pretty explicit sign that Romney is walking away from his attacks on the president’s job-creation record. But if that’s the case, it’s hard to find a rationale for Romney’s candidacy, outside of a generic appeal to technocratic competence. None of this is to say that Romney won’t win the nomination—he almost certainly will. But in a general election where the economy is improving and jobs are more plentiful, he’ll need to do more than wax harmonic over values to win over the public.