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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.