Mitt Romney is among friends at the Republican Jewish Coalition. In 2008 and during this presidential election cycle he’s been able to pull in a great number of Jewish supporters and donors. In his speech today at the group’s candidates forum, he showed why it is not merely a function of his views on Israel. His carefully modulated speech got frequent and warm applause. His standing ovation at the end was enthusiastic.
Romney had decided, as one advisor put it, to “pull back the lens” a bit and give a speech that was not so Israel-centric. Romney put it this way: “Today, you will hear from several of my fellow Republicans. Like me, each will acknowledge President Obama’s failings. Like me, each will assure you of our friendship and commitment to Israel. What distinguishes us from one another is not our opposition to President Obama … or our support for our ally and friend, Israel. What distinguishes us is our background, our experiences, our perspective and our solutions.” He went on to list those experiences that distinguish him from the president (he signed paychecks) and from Newt Gingrich ( he mentioned the “constancy” in his life and dwelled at length on his family).
He did recite his views on the Jewish state:
I will travel to Israel on my first foreign trip. I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. I want the world to know that the bonds between Israel and the United States are unshakable. I want every country in the region that harbors aggressive designs against Israel to understand their quest is futile and that continuing it will cost them dearly.
I would not meet with Ahmadinejad. I don’t believe he should be invited into polite society. To the contrary, I believe he should be indicted for the crime of incitement to genocide under Article III of the Genocide Convention. The ayatollahs will not be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons on my watch. A nuclear-armed Iran is not only an Israel problem, it is problem for the United States and all the decent countries of the world. Our friends should never fear that we will not stand by them in an hour of need. Our enemies should never doubt our resolve.
The meat of the speech was about his broader vision for the country. He seemed at times to echo Rep. Paul Ryan’s call for an alternative vision from President Obama’s cradle-to-grave welfare society.
Romney argued: “President Obama is replacing our merit-based, opportunity-based society with an entitlement society. In an entitlement society, everyone is handed the same rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to others. And the only people to enjoy truly disproportionate rewards are the people who do the redistributing — the government.” And in foreign policy he tagged Obama with an “appeasement strategy.”
In contrast Romney said that he and the audience see a “very different America” from the one Obama sees. We see, he said:
An exceptional America. An opportunity society, where certainty takes the shape of opportunity. A society where our strength is unsurpassed, and where our global objective is to promote freedom and to link arms with those who share our values.
This election will not only be a referendum on President Obama’s failed policies; it will also be a defining choice for America. Will we remain an opportunity nation or become an entitlement nation? Will we remain the leader of the free world, or become a follower in a more dangerous world? Will we “fundamentally transform” America, or will we return to the founding principles that made this the greatest nation history has ever known?
For those desperate not only to win but to win with a conservative reform mandate, this should be a welcome theme. And compared to some of his rivals, he appeared more wonkish and less interested in showing how much venom he can deliver. He perhaps understood better how much Obama’s economic policies and vision rankle conservatives, including those in the audience.
Now, if you paid close attention you could discern some multi-purpose barbs that apply both to Obama and to Newt Gingrich. Whereas Obama is engaging in class warfare and Gingrich is offering red meat, Romney is offering, he argued, a positive vision. If Obama and Gingrich are creatures of government, he’s going to bring his private sector experience to fight back against the “entitlement” mentality. By stressing leadership, he implicitly was dinging the failing president and the speaker who was ejected by his party. When he said he’s not a “creature of Washington” he reinforces his arguments against both Gingrich and Obama.
It was a savvy speech in some respects, meant to convey that he’s capable of laying out a broad conservative vision. And it also suggests that despite the media chatter, he’s showing no “panic,” but instead has recognized that he is going to have to run a contrast campaign simultaneously against Obama and Gingrich. He wants to give voters, he said, more than a chance to vote against Obama.
A Romney advisor last night said that in every election the winner has to overcome a moment where it appear he might lose. (George W. Bush in New Hampshire in 2000, for example.) Romney is facing that moment now. And for the Romney team, the red-hot media spotlight on Gingrich may be the best bet to returning Romney to the top of the polls. Solid conservative-themed speeches won’t hurt either.