Mitt Romney’s Friday speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference was his latest attempt to persuade his party’s base that he is one of them — but a far cry from the message he delivered at the same gathering just a year ago. The difference explains what has happened to Romney and his party during the Republican presidential race.
Romney arrived to CPAC in February 2011 as the nominal, though hardly dominant front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. The GOP contest was slowly taking shape at the time, and Romney came to the annual pageant of conservative rhetoric seemingly determined not to repeat the mistakes he had made as a first-time candidate in 2008.
In that first campaign, as an underdog for the nomination, he surveyed a field that included John McCain and Rudy Giuliani and lurched to the right. He tried to become the conservative alternative, seizing on social and cultural issues to curry favor with the base. He ended up awkwardly trying to defend changes in position on abortion and other issues and struggled to find an authentic voice and message.
What he delivered to the CPAC audience last year signaled a change in approach the second time around. If not looking past the nomination battle, Romney indicated that he would try to run more as himself — a Mr. Fix-It businessman — and on issues that played to his strengths. His principal focus in that speech was President Obama and the economic record of the administration. His secondary focus was on the president’s foreign policy.
He used the word “conservative” once, not to describe himself but to say what Obama’s economic policies were not. He also used the word “conservatism” once, to sum up after saying, “We believe in freedom, in opportunity. We believe in free enterprise and capitalism. We believe in the American dream.”
He was trying to impress conservatives that he was the most electable Republican, not necessarily the most conservative. In that address, he barely mentioned the social or cultural issues that animate an important wing of his party. Those issues were salted through the speech he had given to CPAC in 2007, when he was starting out his first campaign. A year ago, he steered clear of them. He neither wanted to spark another discussion about flip flops, nor apparently did he want to allow the nomination contest to be played on terrain more favorable to some of his opponents than to him.
He arrived at CPAC on Friday still the front-runner for the GOP nomination but, after unexpectedly losing three contests last Tuesday to Rick Santorum, with a new and urgent mission. He wanted to reassure conservatives. He hoped to establish his conservative bona fides in ways he has not during a year of campaigning. He needed to deal with the fact that, in many of the primaries and caucuses, he has struggled to win over the most conservative members of his party.
And so he tried to do what he failed to do a year ago. The words “conservative” and “conservatism” appeared two dozen times in his prepared text. His most memorable line — unforgettable because it caused so much head-shaking in the hotel ballroom — was this: “I was a severely conservative governor of Massachusetts.”
The word “severely” did not appear in the prepared text of Romney’s speech that was distributed by his campaign. It was apparently ad-libbed by the former governor. No one could quite understand what severe conservatism really meant.
Romney described his path to conservatism. It didn’t come, he explained, from devouring the works of Frederick Hayek or Edmund Burke as a college student. He acknowledged that, unlike some of those in the audience, he had not been on the intellectual front lines of conservative debate or at the public barricades of conservative causes through much of his life.
His conservative views and values, he explained, came from his family, his faith and his work as a businessman. “I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism,” he said.
His fiscal conservatism comes from his experience in business, where he said you either balance budgets or go bankrupt. He said his personal life — a marriage of 42 years, a father whose life embodied the American dream, a commitment to his Mormon religion — is testimony to his conservative values.
He used his single term in public office as evidence that he would be true to conservative principles as president. After describing his governorship as severely conservative, he said, “I fought against long odds in a deep blue state. I understand the battles that we, as conservatives, must fight because I have been on the front lines.”
No amount of rhetoric is likely to overcome the doubts that exist among many conservative Republicans about Romney. Friday’s speech aside, the former governor is no ideologue and never has been. He has been trying to win the nomination by being conservative enough, not by being the most conservative.
Santorum, in his appearance at CPAC, took direct aim at the lack of passion for Romney. “Why,” he asked, without naming his rival, “would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party that the party’s not excited about? We need conservatives to rally now, for a conservative.”
Romney can lessen the resistance to his candidacy among those who are most conservative only one way. He can’t do it by trying too hard to be something he is not. He is a conservative but not a movement conservative. He has taken positions in line with those of the tea party movement, but he is not a tea party conservative. He is Mitt Romney, a competitive businessman who likes challenges and solving problems.
The path for Romney remains what it has been, which is to prevail in a competitive nomination contest by making himself the most broadly attractive candidate. He can divide and conquer if Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul remain in the race indefinitely. He can show appeal across his party by winning majorities if the race becomes a two-person contest. It all comes down to the same thing. He must win and keep winning.