Romney's Missing Core
Mitt Romney, the MSM/Republican establishment's designated "front-runner," has failed utterly to connect with or win affection or trust from the over two-thirds of Republican primary voters who self-identify as conservative. As a well-earned consequence of that failure, he remains mired at 20%-25% support among those voters despite repeated opportunities to enhance his standing that have been afforded by his opponents' perceived errors or shortcomings (which, predictably, have been magnified by a media eager to see Romney nominated).
Romney's past positions, at least arguably compelled by his Republican career in deep-blue Massachusetts, have aroused deep mistrust among the conservative two-thirds of his party, yet Romney still exhibits neither instinct for nor interest in reassuring the huge conservative majority of Republican voters.
The latest display of Romney's indifference to the party's overwhelming voter majority is worth reviewing in detail. It not only strengthens the suspicion that there is an empty spot where the man's political core should be, but it reveals his almost compulsive rejection of clarity, unadmirable aversion to risk, and unreliability on issues of major importance to his would-be voter base.
The revealing political morality tale begins in June of this year:
At great political peril, John Kasich, the popular Republican governor of Ohio, supported and signed into law Ohio "S.B.5," a modest, desperately needed curtailment of the power of Ohio's endlessly avaricious public employee unions. The unions, true to established pattern, responded with an initiative campaign to repeal S.B.5. Ohioans will vote on that initiative Nov. 8 -- "No" will be a vote for reversal of the reforms, "Yes" a vote to uphold them.
In June of this year, before the public opinion polls showed substantial opposition to S.B.5, Romney had this to say about Kasich's reforms:
"My friends in Ohio are fighting to defend crucial reforms that the state has put in place to limit the power of union bosses and keep taxes low. I stand with John R. Kasich and Ohio's leaders as they take on this on this important fight to get control of government spending."
Bravo, but, as so often with the elusive Massachusetts politician, that's only chapter one:
Flash forward from June, 2011, to last week, when polls were showing S.B.5 in serious trouble at the ballot box. Questioned about the Kasich reforms, Romney had an attack of Philosophically Unmoored Political Pusillanimity, a syndrome characterized by frequent outbreaks of issue ambivalence:
Last week at an Ohio phone bank appearance, where volunteers were working hard on the lines to shore up support for Kasich's reforms, Romney said, "I am not speaking about the particular ballot issues. These are up to the people of Ohio. But I certainly support the efforts of the governor to rein in the scale of government." Then he added that he wasn't "terribly familiar with the ballot issues."
By contrast, the June 2011 iteration of Mitt Romney had been "terribly familiar" with the facts concerning the Ohio ballot initiative -- sufficiently familiar, in fact, to take a clear and admirable position. But after massive union spending caused Kasich's reforms to take a dive in the polls, Romney's erstwhile familiarity with the pertinent ballot initiative mysteriously evaporated, and he ran for cover.
But wait -- the story is not over yet:
After a day or so spent enduring predictable withering criticism from Rick Perry and other Republican opponents for his obviously poll-driven retreat, Romney slithered back to his original stand, claiming this past Friday to support the Kasich reforms "110%."
As an aside, Romney's newly discovered "110%"support for Kasich's reforms is creepily reminiscent of George McGovern's 1972 promise that he was "1,000%" behind his vice presidential candidate, Thomas Eagleton, who had just been revealed to have undergone electro-shock therapy years earlier for depression. Those of a certain age will recall that, a week later, McGovern dumped Eagleton from the ticket. During the fall campaign, Nixon voters sported bumpers stickers reminding the electorate, "Don't Worry. McGovern's Behind You 1000%."
Romney supporters should take note of that bit of modern American political arcana. Many of Obama's supporters may be young and hence poorly schooled in history, but they tend to find those bits of it that are useful.
Thus, after much torture last week, we finally have Romney's permanent position on public employee union reform. At least for a while. But stay alert for future installments/changes/fine-tuning after the Ohio initiative results are in.
In sum, last week Romney succeeded in conveying the following about his views of public employee union reform:
He firmly believes his support for such reforms (his first position) would cost him less among public employee union sympathizers than remaining agnostic on them (his second position) would cost him with his voter base.
This kind of firm belief seems to be the only kind Romney is capable of. It is not the sort that conservatives seeking reassurance and independents seeking decisive leadership are looking for.
Romney's drama last week about public employee union reform is far from unique. For a spot-on discussion of his closely related inability/unwillingness even to articulate, let alone stick with, a comprehensible policy on the ongoing federal ethanol price support scandal, see George Will's latest column.
For a candidate who occupies a clearly identifiable place on the political spectrum, events such as last week's writhings over Ohio public employee union reform could pass relatively harmlessly. Voters -- particularly conservative voters -- will cut a trusted candidate some slack in an important swing state when he needs to tack a bit to avoid the shoals. But for a candidate like Romney, whose central problem is that, almost five years removed from the ideological restrictions of Beacon Hill confinement, he has failed to convey passionate commitment to anything except his desire to become president, last week was -- deservedly -- a disaster.
Romney's central flaw as a Republican candidate is not that conservatives believe he lacks a generally conservative outlook, though quite reasonably they suspect so, and that is a big problem for Romney. His real problem continues to be that everyone -- conservatives, moderates, and independents -- see him as a politician preternaturally unable or not disposed to define himself philosophically or to take clear, principled and consistent positions on the great issues.
His image is of a man consistently hedging his bets, qualifying his statements, modifying or moving away from prior stances, all the while improbably claiming to see no conflict. He appears to be an office-seeker whose policy positions come from polls rather than from the head, heart, and gut -- a technocrat who spins out a 57-point economic plan (or is it 58? I lose track) that no normal person could possibly suffer through, while remaining unable to define his overarching economic views or to identify clearly and concisely the few major economic measures he believes are most immediately imperative.
For conservatives, whose trust Romney must gain to win his party's nomination and whose enthusiastic support he must arouse to win in November 2012, the composite image of the man is someone who wants to remain free to do anything at all on taxes, government regulation, energy, public employee/pay/benefits/retirement, social issues, judicial appointments, and every other matter of concern to them.
And conservatives well remember how things turned out when Republican leaders cut themselves this much policy slack in the past.
For independents, whose support our analytical betters constantly tell us Romney could more easily attract than the other would-be nominees, Romney's philosophical elusiveness and issue undependability are an even more dangerous gambit. Although this crucial group is generally less well-attuned to the details of policy than more ideologically committed voters, they can tell an inauthentic office-seeker with no political core and no reliability when they see one. They left George Bush I in droves in 1992 because they saw exactly these traits in him.
The dirty little not-so-secret fact is that the vast majority of conservative voters are so appalled by the catastrophe of Obama that in all likelihood, they will dutifully trudge to the polls and cast their vote for Romney, if it comes to that. They understand what is at stake. What their lack of enthusiasm would cost Romney, and the down-ballot Republican Senate and House candidates, is harder to predict.
But it would be a cruel irony if the man whose battle cry is "I'm electable because the moderate middle will like me" were to lose because that very segment of the electorate couldn't see any reason to vote for a manikin whose singular political commitment is personal ambition.