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Buck up, Republicans: Romney is stronger than you think

By Ezra Klein,

Richard Ellis Getty Images I was on Morning Joe Thursday to talk about Paul Ryan’s budget. But the segment before mine was on Mitt Romney’s emergence as the Republican Party’s clear nominee. And the panel — Scarborough in particular — seemed downright dejected. The consensus was that no one likes Romney. Not Republicans, not Democrats, and probably not independents. The expectation is that he will run a joyless, careful, negative, insincere campaign. It will be a bummer for the country and a lost opportunity for the right. This followed Wednesday’s Morning Joe, in which Scarborough argued that no one thinks Mitt Romney will win:

Nobody thinks Romney’s going to win. Let’s just be honest. Can we just say this for everybody at home? Let me just say this for everybody at home. The Republican establishment — I’ve yet to meet a single person in the Republican establishment that thinks Mitt Romney is going to win the general election this year. They won’t say it on TV because they’ve got to go on TV and they don’t want people writing them nasty e-mails.

Unelectable and unlikable: Two terrible tastes that go terribly together. But I think Republicans might be underestimating their new standard-bearer. This might, in fact, be a nadir for Romney, for a couple of reasons:

— The recovery might falter. Perhaps the economic forecasters are wrong. But they are, nevertheless, nearly unanimous in believing that job growth is likely to slow as the year grinds on. The last few months, they think, were boosted by warm weather and businesses rebuilding their inventories. Those accelerants will burn out. Add in the possibility of new troubles in Europe — Spain is redlining today — and Middle East tensions leading to a spike in gas prices, and it’s easy to see how the economy could look shakier in a few months. And if that happens, a lot of people are going to suddenly start thinking Romney is a better candidate.

— Romney is an underrated politician. My colleague Chris Cillizza has convincingly argued that Romney doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Romney is “a Mormon in a party where evangelical voters hold considerable sway,” “a moderate (tonally, at least) in a party that wants red-meat conservatism,” a Northeasterner in a party with a Southern base, and a former governor whose signature achievement was the predecessor to Obamacare. And still he’s winning in the Republican primary. That might be because the rest of the field is weak, but it might be because he’s a stronger candidate than people realize. Perhaps that strength is defensive: He’s good at making his opponents look bad. But that’s a strength all the same.

— Romney is unsuited for the primary but suited for the general. For the last, oh, six years, Mitt Romney has been running in Republican presidential primaries. Those are, arguably, the elections he’s least suited to win, for all the reasons listed above. But now he’s about to get a shot at a general election. And while the promises he’s made and the positions he’s taken will surely make it more difficult for him to swing to the center, he’ll nevertheless be able to run a very different kind of campaign going forward. Maybe he’ll be better at it. And it’s easy to imagine his greatest weakness in the primary — the fact that conservatives believe he’s a secret centrist — becoming his greatest strength in the general. In the end, we don’t know what’s written on Romney’s general-election Etch a Sketch.

— Romney might go for it. Let’s say the economy continues to recover. Let’s say Romney continues to trail Obama in the polls. Let’s say he realizes that he needs to change the underlying dynamics of the election if he’s to have a chance. In that case, conservatives may just get what they seem to really want: A risky campaign that tries to take on “the big issues,” perhaps by bringing Paul Ryan onto the ticket and arguing that the only way to avert a debt crisis is root-and-branch reform of the federal government.

Those campaigns don’t have a great track record. But they are, at the least, interesting, and if Romney chooses to run one alongside Ryan, conservatives will finally get their chance to persuade the country to radically reduce the size and responsibilities of the federal government. And, perhaps a bit paradoxically, the only candidate who can really give them that chance is a candidate like Romney in a year like this one: A candidate who could count on their allegiance wouldn’t need to pander to the base by swinging so far to the right, and a candidate who was clearly going to win would play it safer.

Of course, it’s also possible — and perhaps even likely -- that Romney will run a competent, uninspiring campaign, and lose by a point or two. But even so, my strong guess is that Republicans are going to think Romney a much better candidate in September than they do in April.

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