Mitt Running against McCain's Ghost
If Mitt Romney thought he was done with John McCain after the 2008 primary process, he was wrong.
Think back to the Republicans' moribund nominating season of 2007-2008. George W. Bush was stumbling to the end of his presidency and being dragged around by a Pelosi-Reid Congress. He was also facing a stale set of military interventions and an economy failing due to liberal policies that he could not articulate and would not blame.
The refusal to legitimately lay blame where it belongs -- and, in fact, all of Bush's magnanimity, packaged as his "new tone" communications strategy -- has played out as one of the most spectacular failures in PR history. This tack guaranteed that Bush -- and all conservatives by extension -- took all the blame for all of the liberal disasters plaguing the nation. These included the broken levees around New Orleans and the school buses not used to evacuate residents before Hurricane Katrina. It includes an economy ruined in large part by the Fed, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac -- and what wasn't ruined by the housing disaster and its effect on Wall Street was finished off by liberal energy policy.
Wherever there was chaos and failure, the problem was liberalism. But Bush and Karl Rove and the new tone vacated the bully pulpit and made sure conservatism got the blame along with the administration.
As such, the "Republican brand" was in trouble. If you will recall, that was one of the main themes of the '07-'08 season -- the damaged "Republican brand." Thus, in the minds of the elite pundit class, the GOP had no choice but to nominate a Republican at odds with the Republican Party and most of it core beliefs. Voilà! Arizona Senator John McCain.
Now if you continue to think back-- painful as it might be -- luminaries such as Dick Morris, Charles Krauthammer, and Frank Luntz spent many months opining various iterations of the idea that the brand was so tarnished, therefore McCain was the only Republican un-Republican enough to have a chance in the general election.
As you might recall -- as strange as it may seem today -- Mitt Romney was, by inference, too Republican and too extreme to possibly win the election in '08. Only McCain -- who had made his mark as a "maverick" quick to opposed his own party's base and leadership -- could win.
I am not making this up. This was the "conventional wisdom" back in these dark days.
Any student of the Reagan- and Gingrich-era successes -- successes built on a fearless defense of full-throated conservatism -- doubtless spent many a day in '07-'08 "standing athwart Fox News screaming NO NO NO" (to paraphrase the great William Buckley) at these pundits on the TV. They were so wrong -- and this was so obvious.
And it was obvious to the top conservative talk show hosts and to many Republican primary voters as well. The problem was, with too many crossover primaries and only McCain in contention for the "we aren't really Republicans" vote, it was almost a fait accompli that eventually, McCain would win.
Consider that even Rudy Giuliani actually ran to the right of McCain in '08 -- by promising to "strict constitutionalist" federal judges as president, and by taking a far tougher stance on terror and taxes than the Arizona senator ever would. Naturally, Fred Thompson was way to the right of McCain, and Mike Huckabee seemed to be as well with his emphasis on social issues (an emphasis that disguised what a fiscally moderate faux populist Huckabee was becoming).
Mitt's '08 campaign -- not plagued at that time by the ObamaCare-RomneyCare comparisons -- ran a strongly conservative fiscal pro-business campaign. He even said in a 2007 TV ad that "America loses when Republicans act too much like Democrats." This was a clear slam at the Bush-Hastert-Frist style of government. Romney was also ahead of the curve with the statement that our economy is in deep trouble when "bureaucrats have more opportunity than entrepreneurs."
And Romney was 100% correct on these points, all of them Tea Party-type positions. A John McCain would never and could never utter either sentiment -- since his actions make him one of the big offenders across the board.
In other words, McCain had the anti-GOP vote all to himself, and thus he won the nomination. We all now know what a disaster that was. His feckless attempt to convince folks that "reaching across the aisle" was what they wanted was much like the "new tone," and the results were the same. This sort of campaign is now prominent on the ash heap of electoral history. McCain's statement that America "has nothing to fear from an Obama presidency," for its part, should end up on the intellectual ash heap.
McCain could never create any energy -- and only his pick of Sarah Palin did so for any length of time. With a brief lead in the polls thanks to his VP pick, his campaign proceeded to over-handle Palin, and then McCain himself went ballistic, babbling about "unfettered capitalism" at the Lehman Brothers meltdown.
Disaster. McCain's campaign was mortally wounded. America then elected someone who understands even less about free-market capitalism than the permanent government employee John McCain does: Barack Obama.
Which brings us back to Romney 2012. With Jon Huntsman a non-factor, Mitt is now considered the guy going for the "McCain" vote. McCain is no doubt one of the most disliked Republican presidential candidates in memory, and his campaign is widely considered a testament to how out of touch the D.C. political class is with the rest of the country. In 2008, few were comparing Romney to McCain in the sense that they were cut from the same cloth. Indeed, Romney's '08 CPAC speech was much more Reagan than McCain.
Since that time, however, the nation has moved right -- but Mitt has stayed where he was, or perhaps nudged a bit more to the center. This is a huge miscalculation, no doubt made on the calculus that he can already start working the general election. In other words, Romney seems to be welcoming the McCain vote. Consequently, he is being called this cycle's McCain.
Thus, the recent troubles that Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have inflicted on themselves are benefiting Herman Cain and, to a degree, Newt Gingrich. None of this has helped Romney one bit. (Newt is being helped only because he has shed his "park bench with Pelosi" demeanor and brought the old Newt back to life in the debates.)
The messages of Romney and McCain were nothing alike in 2008. If Mitt wants to have any chance of winning the nomination in 2012, he had better start running against McCain again -- and quickly. If McCain is a verb, you don't want to be caught doing it -- and if McCain is a noun, you don't want any of it spilled anywhere near you. A message even vaguely smacking of McCain is a sure loser in 2012.