My colleague Greg Sargent writes: “[Mitt] Romney comes across as a decision-maker whose choices are methodical, data-driven, and not based in wishful thinking. If the recovery doesn’t accelerate or if the economy dips, and if swing voters are receptive to the argument that Obama’s policies haven’t been effective enough, this aura could loom large in a general election — even if those voters accept the case that in class terms, Romney isn’t one of them.” He goes on to make a number of arguments to rebut Romney’s competency message, but his premise is correct and, indeed, indicative of a larger issue.
In short, what was a handicap in a primary may become an advantage in the general election. Romney is a “technocrat” or a mere “manager,” his conservative critics have sneered. Many swing voters may say: “Sounds good to me!” He really doesn’t care about social issues, conservatives have bemoaned. Some upscale suburbanites and moderate independents may rejoice, finding those hot-button wedge issues to be a distraction. Well, he’s not in favor of radical change and elimination of the federal role in a bunch of areas, the supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Texas Gov.Rick Perry have complained. “So he just wants to fix entitlement programs? Sounds reasonable,” those coveted swing voters may conclude. He didn’t call President Obama a “socialist” or beat the media with a stick, many hard-core conservatives have fretted. “He doesn’t sound too partisan,” general election votes may agree. He doesn’t want to zero out capital gains taxes for the rich, fiscal conservatives have grumbled. “Well, at least he’s trying to do something for the middle class,” the independent voters may conclude.
In a real sense, the difficulty Romney has had is running a general-election campaign in a conservative-dominated primary. Once his race matches his agenda (center-right), it may be a relief for him and his campaign. Candidly, he’s never been a right-winger; he’s a middle-of-the-road Republican. That profile is an easier sell these days in a general election than in many states in the GOP primary.
Moreover, his temperament and style — somewhat restrained, avoiding conservative oratory, hopelessly square and fodder for his critics — really do work better when playing to the center and a larger, less ideologically-driven electorate.
But will he lose his base being so darn reasonable in the general election? He need not if he remembers a few basics:
First, the most conservative thing about him, and the biggest contrast with Obama, is his agenda. He wants to cut regulations and taxes, reduce the debt, inject free-market concepts into Medicare, maintain a robust defense and appoint non-policy-making judges. That is a conservative message. The more he talks about it and how that contrasts with the president’s track record, the more he can reassure his base.
Second, the Supreme Court may very well strike down Obamacare, or at least the individual mandate. If the rest of the law survives, Romney has ?a public that is predisposed to disliking the president’s “historic” issue and very compelling reasons (the Independent Advisory Payment Board, the taxes, the cost) for repealing Obamacare. He can finally get off defense and make the case that the particular federal scheme Obama cooked up (with a rationing board, a load of taxes, a bunch of accounting tricks and a nightmarish impact on small business) is a loser.
And finally, the president is vulnerable on a number of foreign policy fronts. His Israel stance has been a failure, and it has undermined relations between the two countries. Iran is proceeding toward a nuclear-weapons capability and Obama has hollowed out our forces. The recent tragedy in Afghanistan should and will highlight the degree to which we have piled burdens (especially repeated and elongated tours of duty) on our military.
It’s not easy running against an incumbent. But Romney, once weathering the primary, may find the general election setting somewhat more hospitable.