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The following article presents one interpretation of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. For a counter-view written by Ryan Mauro, in favor of Mitt Romney’s electability, click here.
For well over a year now, we’ve been hearing that Mitt Romney was the inevitable nominee for the Republican Party. I’ve personally heard it from Republican fundraisers, Republican Party staffers, and high-ranking conservative commentators. Not only was Romney inevitable, they’d say, he deserved inevitability, because he was clearly the most electable candidate.
With Newt Gingrich blowing Romney’s inevitability meme out of the water in South Carolina and Florida, the question is no longer whether Mitt is inevitable – he’s not—but whether he deserves to be the nominee based on electability.
I believe Mitt is, in fact, virtually unelectable. By contrast, I believe that Newt Gingrich has a serious shot at beating President Obama. Here’s why.
(1) Narrative. Presidential elections are decided on narrative and who gets to define it. In 2004, conservatives succeeded in defining the race as a strong and stable wartime president against a flip-flopping Vietnam-era radical who lied about his war record. In 2008, Obama and the media defined the narrative, which quickly became “The Chosen One.”
In 2012, the conventional Republican wisdom goes, Republicans must run as bland a candidate as humanly possible. If they do, Obama’s record will be the issue rather than the Republican candidate. Romney is clearly the least offensive candidate.
There’s only one problem: every narrative has to define both candidates. The Republican establishment may wish to define Romney as a successful businessman and CEO with governing experience. But he will be defined instead as a 1% elitist out of touch with mainstream Americans; his Bain Capital background will be trotted out to no end; his failure to create jobs in Massachusetts will become a key campaign issue (he was 46th out of 50 during his tenure). The Obama campaign is drooling to get their hooks into Romney – that’s what the entire Occupy Wall Street movement has been about.
Romney has been absolutely incapable of fending off such attacks in the primaries. Gingrich trashed Romney over Bain Capital, and it clearly had an effect with South Carolina voters; Romney’s tax records have been more of an issue than Newt’s marriages in the last two weeks, despite the best efforts of Marianne Gingrich.
In fact, it gets even worse for Romney. Historically, boring candidates don’t do the defining – they get defined. Name the more boring candidate in each election since 1976, and you will be naming a loser: Ford, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, H.W. Bush, Dole, Gore, Kerry, McCain. This is an unbreakable rule. Boring candidates do not have the charisma or capacity to define themselves.
What’s worse, they don’t have the ability to define their opponents, either. Romney is especially plagued by this. The two issues of this campaign will clearly be Obamacare and job creation. Romney loses on both – he created the model for Obamacare, and his job creation record is extraordinarily spotty. The best argument he can make about Obama is the one he’s been making: that Obama is incompetent, that he has “amassed an actual record of debt, decline and disappointment.” It’s a good argument. It’s just not a winning argument. Kerry tried the same argument in 2004; Dole tried the same argument in 1996. Defining Obama as incompetent won’t cut it, because in fact, he is extremely competent – at achieving far-left goals.
Want to know Obama’s counterargument? It’ll look a good deal like Andrew Sullivan’s infamous Newsweek piece. And if this campaign gets bogged down in the details of whether a recovery is actually taking place, even as Obama defines Romney as an out-of-touch richy-rich guy, Obama will win.
It will be significantly more difficult for Obama to craft a narrative about Newt. Obama can’t attack Newt on lobbying – Obama’s stacked his administration with lobbyists, and he was the #2 recipient of Fannie/Freddie money in the Senate. He can’t attack Newt on job creation – if Obama wants to argue Gingrich era job creation vs. Obama era job creation, good luck to him. He could go after him on his personal life, but the only people who care about that are conservative, anyway. He can’t attack Newt as an elitist – they’re both professors. So what’s left? The “crazy old coot” argument. If Newt can avoid that pitfall, as he’s been doing so far with Romney, he can maintain his image as the “big idea guy” who worked with and against Clinton to create massive economic growth.
As for Newt defining Obama – well, Newt hasn’t been shy about that. His goal is to paint Obama not just as incompetent but as unexpectedly radical – a man who posed as a moderate but governed like a hard-left ideologue. Newt has been impressively articulate on this. He may not cite Alinsky during the general election, but you can bet he’ll go after Obama on Obamacare, foreign policy spinelessness, and socialistic redistributionism. McCain hit on that theme last time, but only in the last two weeks – and by then, it was too late. Newt has already come up with the single catchiest title for Obama: The Food Stamp President. It works because not only is Obama putting people on food stamps, he’s ideologically committed to increasing the number of people on food stamps. This title sticks. But it won’t stick coming from Romney, who looks like he’s never met anybody on food stamps.
(2) Numbers. The Republican establishment constantly acts as though it must run the most moderate possible candidate in order to win. Candidates without clear vision, in this view, run the best. Once again, that’s wrong. Gallup shows that 40 percent of Americans consider themselves conservative; 35 percent of Americans consider themselves moderate; just 21 percent of Americans consider themselves liberal. That means that for a Republican to win convincingly, he need only win less than one out of three moderates and draw the entire conservative base.
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