During the last presidential contest, I was often tough on Mitt Romney, once accusing him of “blending in perfectly with his surroundings — a social conservative in Iowa, an agent of change in New Hampshire, a protector of the auto industry in Michigan.” Even losers in a primary process can succeed in impressing, as Mike Huckabee did. Romney did not impress. He ran a campaign both expensive and directionless — a yacht without a rudder.
Last month, I saw Romney speak and take questions at a Republican forum in Manchester, N.H. He was more casual and fluent than I’d seen him before — tieless, knowledgeable on economic matters, tough on President Obama’s record, apparently comfortable in his well-tanned skin. Romney seemed a better candidate, precisely because he wasn’t so eager to please.
Having found his voice, Romney seems to have found his moment. The announcement of his candidacy on Thursday could not have been better timed.
The last few weeks of alarming economic news — slow growth, slow job creation, slow housing market, slow everything — has all but guaranteed that economic management will dominate the early presidential primary season. And Romney’s main appeal is economic management.
The reaction to the financial collapse of 2008 was a populist search for scapegoats, including CEOs. The reaction to our current economic stagnation may be a desperate search for someone who can help return to the economy to growth — just the kind of CEO-figure so recently denigrated. If six or eight months from now Obama still seems out of his economic depth, Romney may well be the strongest Republican contrast.
Romney’s main problem remains his sponsorship of an individual health-care mandate as Massachusetts’s governor. This might be disqualifying for many conservatives — but only if the main Republican primary debate concerns health care. The direction of the economy, however, makes this less likely. During the 2010 election, the most important GOP promise was to undo Obamacare. In 2012, the most potent GOP promise is likely to be a return to economic growth and job creation. On this topic, Romney will have an easier time and a stronger case.