David Brooks is taking some ribbing from the right for a incident described in today’s column in which his 12-year-old talks to Newt Gingrich about abortion. (Ah, it takes us back to fond memories of Jimmy Carter talking nuclear war with Amy!) But the right-wing bloggers and Mitt Romney’s opponents should listen up: Voters, as Brooks explains in the piece, are saying they aren’t buying what the not-Romney candidates are saying.
To begin with, South Carolina voters aren’t buying the Bain attacks. Talking to voters on the stump, Brooks relates: “A realtor looked at me dismissively: Sometimes deals work, he said, sometimes they don’t. You have to be efficient to survive. That’s the way capitalism works. Romney’s opponents probably would have been smarter to hit him for being a flip-flopper, not a businessman.” In fact, the Bain attacks (in lost opportunities and in making his opponents look desperate) will have more to do with a Romney win, should he hold his lead, than any single factor.
Moreover, voters already know Romney is sort of stiff and awkward. They don’t care. It might even be humanizing. Brooks writes: “Mitt Romney is never going to be confused for Pericles on the stump. Every sigh and utterance is prescripted, so watching his rallies is like watching the 19,000th performance of the road show of ‘Cats.’ . . . But Romney’s awkwardness seems to endear him to audiences, because he’s trying so hard. He spends an enormous amount of time after the speeches shaking hands, taking pictures and holding babies. Beads of sweat form on his forehead as he throws himself graciously into the crowds. He also has a nice startle response. When something unexpected happens, his face lights up and you get a burst of happy humanity out of him.”
It is hard to convey, however, just how obsessed his opponents are with the very issues voters don’t care about and the degree to which the media egg them on. Romney got chastised by the punditocracy last night for hedging on when he’d release his tax returns and his moose . . . er . . . elk hunting. What a phony, the media chortled! Oooh, see how he stumbled on hunting?! For Pete’s sake, anyone who cares about hunting or thinks Romney is disqualified because he seems too eager too please already isn’t voting for him. And I can’t imagine that releasing tax returns makes the top 100 list of things that concern voters. But by fixating on these trivial issues the media encourage the unfocused and counterproductive attacks. And his opponents falsely assume they are scoring points when Romney confirms what voters know, namely that he’s a square who lacks familiarity with some cultural touchstones (hunting, football, etc.) This is not going to keep him from getting the nomination.
I’m reminded of the media reaction over Romney’s $10,000 bet. So many were convinced that was a turning point in the race, a serious gaffe. The incident didn’t last 48 hours and Romney suffered no setback. Voters know he is rich.
It is not surprising that journalists who fancy themselves as culturally with it and skillful with words should emphasize these irrelevant issues. But it doesn’t tell us how the candidates are doing. Moreover, the candidates should stop obsessing on Romney’s social deficits and start making the case that voters can get a more solidly conservative candidate who is nevertheless electable.
And in fact that is the rub and likely the reason that Romney is pulling away from the field in national polling. On substance (entitlements, spending, Afghanistan, the defense budget) he’s running a very conservative campaign.His answers on these topics were solid and largely unchallenged by his opponents. (When Rick Santorum took him to task for timidity in not going after current retirees’ benefits on entitlement reform I’m not sure he helped himself.) Unless and until his opponents can undermine voters’ growing acceptance of Romney as a “conservative enough” candidate who is best equipped to take on President Obama, they won’t be able to derail him. And while mathematically very few delegates have been decided, victory after victory for Romney will eventually dry up money and coverage for the other candidates. At some point one of them actually has to beat him to prevent him from becoming the nominee.