Romney, Huntsman and the uncertainty of debt-limit politics

at 04:40 PM ET, 08/03/2011


Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney walks past photographers before talking with reporters in Pennsylvania in late June. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
If you want to know how the debt limit deal is going to play out politically, just keep an eye on the 2012 Republican presidential campaign.

While most of the GOP presidential contenders came out against the deal, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and ex-Utah governor Jon Huntsman were on diametrically opposed sides of the deal’s fence.

While Romney took pains to stay out of the sausage-making process and announced his opposition to the deal just before it was approved early this week, Huntsman was eager to support it early on, jumping onboard House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) proposal right away and later becoming the only major presidential candidate to back the deal reached by party leaders and President Obama.

Both approaches have their benefits; and both could also prove problematic as the two vie to challenge Obama in November 2012.

Romney’s strategy looked like genius for a while, but of late, the media and his presidential opponents have begun to slam him for essentially ignoring the biggest political debate in the country so far this year.

In a statement released to The Fix on Wednesday, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) campaign joined the chorus, echoing comments made by Sarah Palin on Fox News on Tuesday.

“Governor Romney has often waited to see which way the wind blows,” said Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart. “We welcome him to the battle — late, but we welcome him just the same.”

Basically all of Romney’s opponents are getting some traction by criticizing his inaction on the issue. And one of The Fix’s favorite reporters – Politico’s Ben Smith – coined a term this week that could haunt Team Romney in the weeks and months ahead: The Mittness Protection Program. It refers to the idea that Romney has basically been hiding from the big ideas and issues of the day.

This could all help Romney’s opponents paint a picture that ends up being very similar to the image that emerged of Romney’s 2008 campaign. In that race, Romney got pegged as an expedient politician with no real convictions.

At the same time, by not supporting or opposing all of the other proposals that were brought forward before the final deal, Romney avoided pinning himself down on all manner of things that could be used against him in the future.

Any time you’re supporting or opposing a broad package of spending cuts and reforms, its pretty easy to cherry pick one or two items than make for a powerful campaign ad. If you were one of Romney’s opponents, you could easily pick one of the more controversial aspects of the plan and hang it around Romney’s neck. Or, if he didn’t support the larger proposal, you could accuse him of opposing this or that spending cut.

Romney also has an eye on the general election, where he still wants to be able to attract independent voters. Embracing some of the more conservative proposals could have hurt him if he gets to that point.

Romney essentially punted on Boehner’s first plan, which passed the House on its second try, by praising the speaker but not embracing the package. The only bill that the 2012 contender took a firm position on was the final package that passed this week. And he, along with basically every Republican facing a tough primary, opposed it.

Palin and Bachmann accused Romney of having his finger in the wind, but the better metaphor may be that the former governor is trying to avoid the wind completely. And hey, it’s worked for him so far (as most polls show him leading the primary).

Huntsman, meanwhile, was quick to jump on board with the last two proposals. This is part of his strategy of trying to look like the adult in the room – the moderate pragmatist who wants to get things done and isn’t a craven politician.

“Everyone else played politics,” Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller said. “Voters want a president who is going to be honest with them.”

Inasmuch as Huntsman has a path to victory right now, this is it. While all the other Republicans will be fighting over ground on the right, Huntsman is content to appeal to the leftovers in the middle.

In a head-to-head primary with one other candidate, Huntsman’s strategy is probably a losing one. In a disparate presidential field where few candidates have distinguished themselves and you only need 25 or 30 percent of the vote to have a good day, it’s easier to make an argument that this strategy works.

At the same time – and this is a big caveat — Huntsman is taking a pretty big risk here. That’s because he can now be held accountable for whatever does or doesn’t come out of the so-called “super committee” created by the debt limit bill, which is responsible for picking the cuts that will be made going forward. If the committee and Congress raise taxes, that could be tied to him; if it can’t agree to a deal and the alternative cuts – including to Medicare and defense – are triggered, he could own that one too.

Raising the debt limit aside, this is why lots of Republicans were hesitant to embrace the deal. We won’t know for a while whether the deal is actually a liability or not, but even a whiff of such problems is enough to scare away almost every other Republican facing a primary.

In the end, both Romney and Huntsman could face problems because of their posture during the debt limit debate. Only time will tell which one of them — or whether either of them — bet on the right horse.

 
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