Now that a little time has passed since the departure of Rick Santorum from the primary race, it is time to start dealing with the reality of Mitt Romney as our nominee. No, he won’t get 100% of the vote from here on out. Many conservatives will cast their vote for Gingrich, right up until the end, in an effort to keep Mitt Romney from getting too comfortable and to keep pushing him to the right. And I think that’s probably a good idea. 2008 left those of us on the right with a bad taste in our mouths and we’re all a little afraid of jumping on board with the front-runner before it’s absolutely necessary. At this point, the Gingrich vote is less about voting for a candidate than it is about saying to Mitt Romney, “I need you to show me a little bit more.” But after two primary contests, is there anything left for Romney to show us? Is he doomed to be the candidate that only gets votes because Barack Obama is the alternative? Or is there a plausible path to get people genuinely excited to vote for him? I think that there is. While I acknowledge that there is a real possibility of him “going McCain” on us this summer, I think that Mitt Romney has all of the necessary tools to be a great candidate. He just has to use them.
First, we should take a minute to acknowledge that Mitt Romney does have an awful lot of good qualities. No, he was not my first, second, or even third choice, but that’s because we had an unusually large number of conservative candidates to choose from. Let’s not forget that in 2008 we would have been thrilled with the primary results had Romney won. On his worst day, Mitt Romney is 1,000% more conservative and less in love with being called a “maverick” than John McCain ever was. Furthermore, the Mitt Romney of 2012 is more conservative than the Mitt Romney of 2008. So, it may not be the outcome we were hoping for, but it isn’t all that bad either. Mitt Romney is a better than average Republican candidate. The problem is that if he expects people, particularly younger people, to tell their friends to vote for him, he has to be better than average. Like it or not, people want to be wowed now days. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. People voted for Barack Obama because they liked the way he made them feel. That it is a game that Republicans can’t win. We don’t do feel good politics. If Mitt Romney wants to excite people he must do it by contrasting the empty promises and abysmal record of the President with his own real life successes.
The key to the general election always starts with your own party. But, I think we can safely skip the “uniting the party” step that usually follows a primary and move straight to the part about getting them fired up. Yes, this was a tough and divisive primary, but Barack Obama is so unpalatable to Republican voters that it wouldn’t matter who they ran. People who typically vote Republican would sooner vote for Charlie Sheen than for Barack Obama. We don’t need to be brought back into the fold. We’ll vote for Romney when the time comes. But he still must find a way to get us excited to vote for him. While it’s true that a this-guy-will-do vote counts as much as a vote cast by a die-hard supporter, an enthusiasm gap does translate into fewer votes overall. There are those who plan on voting, but a rainy day or a last-minute trip to the grocery store is enough to make them decide to just sit this one out. “What’s one vote?” they might say. But statistics show that when voters aren’t excited, a lot of people decide that their one vote doesn’t matter. Historically, low voter turn out favors the incumbent, which would be bad news for the Republicans. Furthermore, if Mitt Romney plans on swaying the people who are still on the fence, he needs to get their Republican friends and neighbors excited enough to talk about him. Saying that “at least he’s not Obama” won’t fly with people who still think the President is a nice enough guy. He needs to get the voters who are already in his corner to go out and say, “You have to listen to this guy. He’s got great ideas and he knows what he’s talking about.” As of right now, that isn’t happening.
Step one is to get the most vocal corner of the Republican party, the conservatives, fired up. Aside from RomneyCare, Mitt Romney doesn’t have any glaring policy issues that would give right-wing voters a cause for concern. Yes he’s flip-flopped, but he’s always flipped to a more conservative position and isn’t known for flipping back. In fact, it’s probably more fair to say that he’s grown more conservative over the years than to say that he flip-flops. His problem is that even after years of being “severely conservative,” he hasn’t developed an instinct for conservatism. He often hesitates to embrace the more conservative option until someone else pushes the issue. Whether it is the individual mandate, Cap and Trade, or even abortion, Mitt Romney took the scenic route to the “right” position. Wouldn’t it be nice to see him take our side right from the jump? This summer, he must find a way to show that he can quickly take the lead on any issue that comes up. Jumping on a hot news story with a passionately conservative position would go a long way to get people on our side excited. Between now and election time he must look for opportunities to be the first voice to respond to breaking news. Just repeating what he heard some other conservative say won’t cut it he needs to be the originator of his position. If he demonstrates an instinct for conservative ideas, 90% of the hesitation of Tea Party voters would melt away. Unlike John McCain, who time and time again abandoned conservatives to “reach across the aisle,” Mitt Romney is pretty reliable once he settles on a more right-wing position. We just wish it didn’t take him so long to get there.
His other issue with the base is that he is having a bit of an image crisis. Is he a true conservative who occasionally puts his foot in his mouth because he has spent too much time among the moderates of Massachusetts or is he a “Rockefeller Republican” who feigns conservatism to get votes? I think his record shows that it isn’t all an act, but all that matters is that when he talks about his passion for conservative values, he sounds like he’s just been coached by someone who read a book on conservatives without ever actually meeting one. The most obvious example being that he describes himself as “severely conservative.” People on the right don’t describe themselves that way. We don’t think there is anything severe about our beliefs, liberals think that. It would be like President Obama calling himself “spinelessly liberal.” He repeatedly falls into the trap of using left-wing language to explain policies. He even does it when he’s talking about himself! And I think that’s what lays at the heart of his image crisis. He oftentimes employs liberal political language to downplay his own success. And it’s really a shame that he is so uncomfortable with himself because he has a lot to offer. Mitt Romney’s life should serve as a shining example of the sort of success that is possible with right-wing policies. The guy is a walking talking tribute to the free market system. His economic knowledge and business experience alone should make him a shoe-in for President, if only he didn’t act like he was so darned ashamed of them. Like saying that he would “make sure the top 1% keeps paying the current share they’re paying or more.” Why, when the President is trying to paint him as part of the evil elitists that comprise the “1%,” would he even acknowledge the 1% vs. 99% nonsense? Mitt Romney’s life is an inspirational story. Playing into the “rich people don’t pay their fair share” argument is a cheap ploy used by Democrats to drive emotional malcontents to the ballot box. Every time Mitt Romney pretends that he too is worried about the wealth gap, he misses a wonderful opportunity to explain true capitalism. If he did that, Republican voters could point to him as the perfect example that conservative principles both in business and life are a recipe for success. But instead of highlighting what is perhaps his best qualification for President, he pretends to buy into the Wall St. vs. Main St. propaganda because he thinks it will make him more likeable. Unfortunately for him, it just makes him seem ridiculous. He’s like one of those moguls with the bad wigs on Undercover Boss. Guess what Mitt? You don’t fit in with most of us and you never will. But that’s OK because we’re electing a President not a new best friend. I don’t want a President who’s just like me. I want a President who has enough knowledge and experience to help turn things around. And Mitt Romney has that, if only he weren’t afraid to tell people about it.
Which brings me to my next point. If Mitt Romney got a little bolder in his policies and was a little more willing to talk about his success, swaying Independents would be easy. Just like in his quest to excite conservative Republicans, his first job is to stop acting like something he is not. Not just because it comes off as insincere, but because he puts his foot in his mouth every time he does it. Bad jokes about bakeries, factories, and his father’s campaign days all stemmed from his relentless attempts to come off as a slightly cooler and funnier version of himself. But why try to be cool and funny when he is genuinely smart? Isn’t that a more important quality? He is considerably more intelligent than his recent string of gaffes would lead us to believe. He just has to stick to what he knows. He is not a typical working class guy. He is an exceptionally wealthy man who made his fortune with hard work, sound investments, and fiscal responsibility. He is not particularly funny. He is a stiff dork who tells bad jokes, but, hey, that’s what we expect from financial geniuses. Not too many people have funny accountants. He is not cool, at all. He is a squeaky clean candidate without so much as a whisper of scandal in his past. Think about how rare that is. No DUI’s, no rape/sexual harassment accusations, no rumors of affairs, no cocaine use, no communist mentors, no terrorist friends. The worst thing anyone has accused him of is improperly transporting his dog during a 1983 family vacation. Let the other guy be the “cool” candidate, because he’s really bad at everything else. Mitt Romney should be the smart and responsible candidate. After all, having Saturday Night Live paint you as a dork is way better than having everyone else perceive you as an idiot.
Finally, after watching the primary debates, we can probably rule out one more thing about Mitt Romney’s character. He is not, by nature, a push-over. Even when I personally disagreed with him, I must admit that he wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with other Republicans. He used every resource at his disposal to showcase his own strengths and expose his opponents shortcomings. His reputation among past GOP contenders in 2008 as well as this year is that of a ruthless competitor. That says, to me, that if we see him start to play the Obama-is-a-nice-guy-and-I’m-not-going-to-attack-him routine this year, that he is once again trying to appear to be something he is not. I’m not saying that I want to see him play dirty politics or distort the truth, I don’t. But I would like to see him run for President in an honorable way without looking like he decided to run for Mr. Congeniality instead. And he’s off to a good start. When he speaks of the President he has been more forceful and bold than we’ve seen him be in the past. But this new-found willingness to attack Democrats, can’t be a tactic just to get him through the rest of the primary. If he gives in to pressure to reinvent himself as a happy-go-lucky moderate for the summer, he will lose big time. He must show swing voters that his ideas aren’t just good enough, they are good enough to warrant a passionate defense.
President Obama’s first term has been one of the most polarizing in recent history. It’s hard to imagine that there are still some people on the fence, but there are. If Mitt Romney plans on winning those votes, he won’t do it with subtlety. Most swing voters don’t follow politics all that closely. He has to get their attention. He won’t get it with an emotional appeal. President Obama owns that game. He has to win by being direct and unapologetic. He has to demonstrate, not that he is a slightly better choice, but that he is the only choice! He has to boldly show that the President’s promises are hollow and his policies have failed. He has to be willing to expose President Obama as an empty suit who relies on a hip image and emotional pandering to get votes, while showing himself to be the opposite. A clean-cut, kinda dorky guy who is very smart, very successful and has lots of good ideas for our country now and in the future. In other words, a winning campaign for Mitt Romney needs to be the exact opposite of what we’ve come to expect. He needs less coaching, fewer image consultants, and a lot less restraint. He has everything it takes to win and win big, he just has to stop trying so hard to hide it.