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Michael Brendan DoughertyBack to OpinionMichael Brendan Dougherty

Memo to Romney: Time to be bold

Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the Veterans of Foreign Wars 112th National Conference, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011, in San Antonio. Photo: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Somehow Mitt Romney has managed to stay off stage during Tim Pawlenty’s flame out and Michelle Bachmann’s soufflé-fast rise and collapse. But the instantaneous appearance of Rick Perry on the top of every national poll has revealed the Romney campaign’s weaknesses, which are likely to be fatal to his ambitions.

Mitt Romney has never built lasting love with conservative voters and institutions. Cut back four years ago: After candidates beloved by the conservative movement, like Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani fell before John McCain’s improbable comeback, the right-of-center opinion machinery lurched at Romney in desperation.

Why not? Romney was flattering them. To cut off social conservatives like Mike Huckabee, he changed his position from more pro-choice than Ted Kennedy to more pro-life than the Pope. To be tougher than America’s Mayor, he pledged to “double Guantanamo.” And, after all, his health-reforms in Massachusetts were conceived by Heritage Foundation policy wonks. The National Review endorsed him. Romney would declare the end of his candidacy at 2008’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Conservative-radio-talktress Lauara Ingraham nearly sobbed.

But then all hell broke loose on the right. Obama’s health-care plan energized a cohort of activists and writers for whom the words “individual mandate” are anathema. Romney’s campaign telegraphed that they couldn’t afford one more mind-change on a major issue. So Mitt flipped on “flipping” by flopping onto federalism. According to his flacks, Romney-care was basically good for Massachusetts, but it is a tyrannical overreach when Washington offers it. There is almost no chance of The National Review or other movement institutions coming to Romney’s aid in a fight with more conservative candidates who excite their donor-base and readers.

A prolonged economic slump makes Romney even more vulnerable to the charge of being a heartless margin-chopping consultant, the economic villain who renovates his homes between restructuring you for unemployment. Rick Perry may look like a bad boss too. But the sociable Perry seems likely to deliver you the bad news with an encouraging handshake and a smile. It’s easier to imagine Romney’s last words to you being, “Security is packing up your personal items now and will escort you from the building. Your email has also been shut down.” The Obama campaign is salivating at the chance to take on Mitt Romney, to use the ads of downsized-workers whose companies dealt with Romney’s Bain Capital.

Also Romney’s campaign lacks courage. One of the reasons for the glut of Jon Huntsman and Michelle Bachmann magazine profiles has been a total lack of media access to Mitt Romney. What are they so afraid of? Team Romney also pulled out from Iowa to play defense in New Hampshire. This strategy may have been sound when Bachmann was their competition but it now gives Perry a chance at gaining unstoppable momentum with conservatives in the party, and invites a wrestling match with Huntsman for those GOP voters looking for a more independent-friendly face for the party.

There is a creeping suspicion that Romney’s consistent second-place finishes in polls are the result of name-recognition only. Many Republican voters asked who they would vote for if their primary were today respond like desperate men at a closing bar asked whom they would take home. Their answer: that easy one I know, that one will saying anything to get with me. But this bar doesn’t close for a long time. And there is plenty of time for the restive electorate to meet other candidates.

There may be ways for Romney to thrive in the 2012 field, but they are risky. First, he should compete in Iowa rather than cede it to Perry. There are likely to be several social conservatives still competing in the Hawkeye state when the caucuses happen. By putting Perry’s victory there in doubt, Romney will encourage caucus-goers that would split for the less-viable candidates and almost certainly deny Perry a big win. Romney would also prove that he could compete in a deep-red state.

Second, Romney should embrace his axe-cutting image, but point his blade to the federal government. Tell voters honestly that Bain Capital did encourage companies to lay-off American workers, but that this pruning, however painful allowed the firms to survive and continue to employ others. Then pivot: Doesn’t Washington need to be restructured? Doesn’t our federal government need someone who can distinguish essential from inessential services?

For sure, it is a dangerous strategy, but it would be the first time that voters felt like they were seeing the real Mitt Romney. And it is the only way to build small-government credibility on his biography and character. Instead of being a weather-vane, he could become something like the man who defeated him last time: a teller of hard truths.

Of course, Mitt Romney will never take this advice. Politics requires someone who can see more than risks and downsides. It is not a corporate consultant’s game. America wants a president who embodies their aspirations and is bold enough to reach for their own. That is why Bill Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama were able to seize their party’s nomination when their candidacies seemed ordained to be noble failures. Romney will hide in fortress New Hampshire and be mortally wounded there. He’ll be buried in South Carolina.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is a contributing editor to The American Conservative. His work has appeared in Politico, The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine and other outlets.


  • whatever

    Romney appears to be the only potentially sane candidate on the republican slate.  

  • Anonymous

    Considering the level of “sanity” among the current crop of Republican/Teapeople vying for the nomination, I would say that level ”sanity” is a VERY LOW BAR to reach. 

  • Anonymous

    Romney is doing just fine so he must keep doing the same.
    Be bold you say, what like the three crooks, Chistie, Trump and Perry.
    Give  me a break, they have no shot, believe me when I telll you.
    Put your money on Palin and Romney.

    Really hate to say this but like Palin and Romney, I have to tell the truth.
    If it came down to Obama, Perry or Ron Paul and no other choices, I would vote for Obama……At least Obama never said he agreed with Vicente Fox’s dream of Open Borders with the US……..
    In Perry’s speech in 2001 he said he agreed with Vicente Fox’s dream of Open Borders with the US..You can call his office in Texas and ask them.
    He sold out to Hispanics to get their vote..(he gave away the house) all on the tax payer’s dime.
    He made appointments to high office’s in Texas to Hispanics that in no way should have been made. He did the same with those that donated to his campaign.
    As we speak Perry is talking with Hispanic groups and making deals.
    So Sec. is the best thing that ever happened and Perry wants to abolish it.
    Palin and Romney said So Sec. is a great program and just needs a fine tune.
    The same with Medicare…
    The thing is, Obama get a second term, he will not have to answer to voters again because there is no third term…..Even if the GOP get control of the Senate and keep the House, Obama can and will do major damage to this country……He will be able to make appointments to Court, etc,etc, etc.
    The safest bet in the General are “Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney” to beat Obama.
    24,000 emails and Palin comes out smelling like a ROSE.
    Palin’s foe’s have uncovered every rock and pebble and found Zilch.
    Romney foe’s have uncovered every rock, if he gets the nod they will look under the pebbles and he will come out clean for sure.
    Perry, Christie, Trump would go straight to jail, if they look hard…
    This is not political correct but the truth, we must not allow more illegals in or stay in this country.
    These uneducated Whites, Blacks that are legal have a unemployment rate of about 40% ~ they must have these jobs that the illegals are taking.  Google: Carol Swain and read what she said about the subject.
    This country needs and must have to survive the smartest of the smart. We must keep these students that graduate with PhDs and degrees. We must found a way to keep them. Already China has made the fastest computer in the world. Because of the unions in this country we can no longer compete with other countries in manufacturing. Look at Seattle Trash Haulers not long ago went on strike, it was not enough that they make 110,000 per year, they wanted more ~ Google it.
    You see the companies that are going bk because their products are being made cheaper in China, etc..
    Palin said some time back that she has plenty of time.She does because of her name recognition. (if she jumps in, it will be a bonanza for the media) Palin said she would make announcement end of Sept. so that’s two more wks.She said she and Todd feel bad for the boots on the ground working to help her.She hates to keep them hanging but she has to do what she has to do…Keep in mind that she did not ask for any help but she said, it makes her want to run all the more.She said she is truly appreciative for what people are trying to do for her…….. We all know she has her own business that she must tend to.Once she throws her hat in she can no longer work for Fox.So what ever she has to do, we will support her…….. Hope she runs and picks Romney as her VP…Sheriff Joe to replace Janet at Homeland Security.Jeff Sessions to replace the crook Eric Holder.Herman Cain, Mark Levin, Allen West with her somewhere. First thing when Sarah took office as Gov she said she wanted to see first hand what her troops needed.No other Gov did that during war time like Sarah….
    Good to cut, paste and pass on.