Threading the Needle: What Romney Must Do to Win in November

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Energizing the base while appealing to independents will be more challenging than usual this year.

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After a huge win in Florida, Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican nominee in Election 2012. Assume he sees it through to the finish. Can he take the White House in November? Perhaps. The economy is weak. The right is motivated to defeat the incumbent. And the left is less enamored of President Obama than it was four years ago, before he broke so many promises. To win, Romney must recalibrate his message, as is true of all primary winners. But he'll perhaps have a harder time doing so than some bygone nominees.

This is true for several reasons:

  • Since the Republican Party's base is neither excited about Romney nor inclined to trust him, it'll require effort during the campaign just to turn them out. As he tries to energize them, however, he must avoid alienating independents, as John McCain did four years ago by putting a polarizing vice presidential candidate on the ticket.
  • A small but growing faction on the right believes that casting a ballot for any impure candidate -- or compromising in politics generally -- is a betrayal of principle. 
  • Romney must avoid confirming the narrative that he's an untrustworthy flip-flopper who'll say anything to get elected. A typical move to the center is thus lot more fraught for him than for a candidate with different vulnerabilities.

The final question Team Romney is asking: "How best to attack President Obama?" It is perhaps the thorniest strategic conundrum they'll face in the general election. Over four years, GOP politicians and voices in movement conservatism have squandered rhetorical capital and public attention on truly idiotic critiques. Birtherism is the most widely known and deservedly mocked. And it isn't the craziest theory. Dinesh D'Souza claimed that the best way to understand Obama is to grasp his Kenyan, anti-colonial mindset -- an argument Newt Gingrich actually endorsed. For Andrew McCarthy, Obama leads a leftist alliance with our Islamist enemy in a "grand jihad" against America. Glenn Beck's conspiracy theories are too convoluted to remember.

These critiques imposed an opportunity cost: untold millions listened to off-putting, laughable nonsense when they could've been absorbing the strongest arguments against Obama's policies, character, and outlook on the world. As yet, even Mitt Romney has based his critique of President Obama's foreign policy on the inaccurate notions that he has gone on an unprecedented apology tour, and is an appeaser of America's enemies. These lines of argument have two shortcomings: they're totally untrue; and they're vulnerable to the retort, "I killed bin Laden."

What I wonder is how the Republican base would react if, during the general election, Mitt Romney started marshaling the most devastating critiques of Obama's first term. Imagine if he inserted these lines into his acceptance speech at the GOP convention:

"In 2008, Barack Obama said he was running to change the system in Washington. He said challenging the lobbyists, the industry giveaways, and the special interests was a precondition for everything he wanted to accomplish. That he'd do it first, because the change he promised couldn't be accomplished otherwise. Then he got to Washington. And he didn't challenge the system he himself called corrupt. He didn't try to change the rules of the game, like he promised. Right from the start, he worked within the system to pass the bailouts.

"Then he worked within the system to pass his health-care bill, with all its concessions to industry and lobbyists. By his own logic, he failed in the primary task he laid out for himself in 2008. He broke the overarching promise he made to American voters. Some of you like the results of the health-care bill he passed. I respect that, even though I think it was a well-intentioned mistake. But either way, how can you trust a man who ran a campaign promising, first and foremost, to change the system -- when once in office, he behaved as if his ends justified different means? Obama's first term failed when judged against his own criteria. And the American people have no reason to believe he'd keep his promises if given another term."

To me (and to Larry Lessig, who made much of this critique in his book on the need for campaign-finance reform), that's one example of a powerful, accurate criticism that can be made of this president. But it isn't the sort of critique that the conservative base wants to hear, judging by the people who most successfully pander to them. How Romney plays Election 2012 is anyone's guess. This much, however, is clear: if he hopes to win, he needs to make a case against Obama that is much more powerful than anything he or his allies have so far offered -- but appealing enough to Republicans accustomed to red meat that they don't stay home.


Image: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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