Mitt Romney’s just-finished speech announcing his run for president neatly captured his strategic dilemma: How can he feed red meat to a conservative base hungry for a candidate who will confront Obama in the most visceral way possible, while preserving his aura and stature as a non-crazy alternative to the likes of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann?
As many commentators have noted, the Donald Trump boomlet showed that there’s a deep desire among Republican primary voters for a candidate who will take on Obama in the ultimate way: By casting doubt on his identity, true intentions towards our country, and legitimacy as president. Romney — who is hoping to win over GOP elites and wants to be the leading non-knuckle-dragger in the race — isn’t willing to traffic in birtherism or claim that Obama harbors ill will towards America.
So he’s opted for the next best thing: Hinting that Obama’s cultural instincts are vaguely alien, questioning Obama’s appreciation of America as “we” understand it, and suggesting that his Presidency has transformed our country into something no longer recognizably American.
This was the unifying thread throughout the whole speech. He used a variation of the word “European” no less than four times, describing Obama’s policies as “European answers” and claiming Obama takes his inspiration “from the capitals of Europe.”
“This President’s first answer to every problem is to take power from you,“ Romney said. “You and I understand this. We look at our country, and we know in our hearts that things aren’t right, and they’re not getting better.”
The suggestion that Obama represents a fundamental threat to America as we understand it is also the key subtext underlying one of the speech’s big applause lines: “We are only inches away from ceasing to be a free market economy.”
And this theme was also obviously in evidence when Romney reiterated one of his old favorites: “A few months into office, he travelled around the globe to apologize for America.” Interestingly, Romney repeated this claim even though Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler completely debunked the assertion that Obama has ever apologized to America the last time Romney made it.
Romney has long signaled that this is the approach he’ll take. Back in February, he was even more obvious about it, claiming that Obama does not understand “the nature of America” and its “values.” We’re now seeing Romney make this case as an official candidate, albeit with a bit more subtlety, if you can call it that.
Romney’s chief vulnerability in the GOP primary, of course, is that conservatives don’t believe he’s fundamentally one of them. Romney seems to be trying to reassure them that he shares their political instincts by playing along with their suspicions (but in a non-crazy way) that Obama fundamentally isn’t one of us. You could argue that Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman are trying variations of the same game, but no one is laying it on as thick as Romney. It’ll be a neat trick if he can pull it off.