The Tempting of Mitt Romney


John Ellis:

A large part of politics is framing the context in which one's candidacy is understood. Romney was never going to be a base candidate. He's a Mormon and the base is not. Romney was never going to be the "conservative" candidate, he was the former governor of Massachusetts, perhaps the most liberal state in the country, and campaigned there for the US Senate (in 1994) and for governor (in 2002) as a moderate.

Romney's only real choice was to run as a Republican Gary Hart, the candidate of "new ideas" for a party in desperate need of same. That would have at least given him the flexibility to play to his strengths; his intellectual prowess, his business acumen, his demonstrable executive skills and his admirable personal qualities. And it would have enabled him to attract a wide array of advisors and intellectuals to help him think through innovative policy positions on what appear to be intractable issues.

Had Romney campaigned as the GOP Gary Hart, he would have emerged as an agent of change, regardless of caucus and primary outcomes. Long-term, that would have given him leverage within the Republican Party and with voters generally. If you're the "new idea" guy, almost by definition people want to hear what you have to say.

Having been pretty hard on Romney yesterday, let me say something in his defense. Like Ellis, I think he should have run as the candidate of new ideas, as a Republican Gary Hart, and in a different field - one with, say, a George Allen as the frontrunner - I think he would have. But in this field, this year, I can see why he didn't. In a race where his main rivals seemed to be John McCain and Rudy Giulani, the absence of a natural "base candidate" probably looked so glaring, and the benefits of filling that void so potentially enormous, that it's easy to understand what drove the Romney campaign to run things the way they did. Seizing the opportunity that presented itself, and assuming that they'd be able to pivot back to their candidate's real strengths once the nomination was sealed up, looks like a big mistake right now, but if Mike Huckabee had never caught fire everybody might have woken up this morning talking about what a great campaign Mitt Romney had run. And Gary Hart, you may recall, never won the Democratic nomination, let alone the Presidency.

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