Mitt Romney is underrated.
People don’t just find themselves the nominee of a major political party because they got lucky. Oh, Romney had some luck, no question about it: The Republican Party happened to have a gap in heavyweight candidates, so that both the 2008 and 2012 nominations were open to mid-level politicians like him. But it wasn’t primarily luck that is getting him the rest of the way there in 2012.
The reason people don’t see that, I suspect, is because Romney’s public electioneering skills are second rate. Oh, he’s not utterly incompetent; he’s able to learn, and he now gives a speech fairly well most of the time and has become fairly good at presidential debating. But no one has ever accused him of having the instincts for that side of politics, and once a week or so — maybe a bit more often — his programming glitches and he and his wife’s two Cadillacs are just glaringly wrong. I mean, a $10,000 bet wrong.
You know what, though? I don’t want to say that stuff is irrelevant, especially in primary elections where there’s so little to differentiate the candidates in the first place, but the truth is that there’s a lot more to being a good politician than sounding like one. For one thing, there’s the ability to collect resources, whether it’s money or campaign organization or the support of party actors. Romney’s done well at all of that. For another, it helps to build a good reputation with your peers within the party. Romney’s apparently done well with that, too, unlike Newt Gingrich or, perhaps, Rick Santorum – there generally haven’t been any personal attacks from those who worked with Romney. It’s a skill, too, albeit one that is more scorned than admired, to be willing to mold issue positions to the electorate. You won’t catch Romney defending earmarks, as all three of his rivals did in the last debate. Yes, he was stuck with health-care reform, but even there he probably has done about as much as possible to differentiate it from “Obamacare.” Regardless of how illogical that might have been.
Romney’s weaknesses that have mattered the most in his presidential bids have been issue-based, and beyond that they have really been constituency-based; he’s demonstrated just how difficult it is for a Republican from Massachusetts to win the GOP nomination for president, given the very different policy positions needed in a general election in Massachusetts and presidential primaries in the rest of the nation. In other words, his weaknesses have very little to do with him personally. And yet he’s basically overcome that difficult starting point and will be the Republican nominee for president, barring some major unexpected event. Whatever it may look like from the outside, that’s skill, not luck.