Is Romney Enough Of A Change Agent?

Mitt Romney's presidential campaign set sail in January with the goal of navigating around three distinct boueys. Clustering around each were Republican voters with ever-more-difficult questions.

The first were definitional: who is this guy? Is he conservative, enough?

The second was related to policy: what would he do?

The third is functional: why would Romney be better than the others?

Romney couldn't pass to the second and third boueys without covering the first.

The first cluster of questions involved buzzwords: abortion, Mormonism, Massachusetts, flip-flopping, family, marriage. Romney seems to have answered some, though certainly not all, of these. The entrance of Rudy Giuliani into the race helped Romney jump immediately to the policy vetting stage; Giuliani's attributes are so unusual that Romney's look tame and ordinary by comparison.

Romney released a 70-page book of his policy proposals yestersday, suggesting that the campaign now believes that he has successfully established himself as a font of innovate new policies.

Romney's bridging to stage three: the argument. In a phrase: "Change Begins With Us."

Here's the ad:

So Romney will try to close the deal as the facilitator of change within the Republican Party. But he is not running Barack Obama's campaign or even John Edwards's campaign. Unlike the Edwards/Obama hard charge against the System, Romney focuses (not in these ads but elsewhere) on earmarks and spending, he is looking at the symptoms, rather than causes, of the conservative disaffection with its party. He seems to have no problem with the architecture of the modern Republican Party; the pay-to-play nexus of corporate lobbyists and tax policy; the overstimulation of certain interest groups; the reliance on white males for votes; the disjuncture between elites and the base on immigration; the patronage mill culture of Washington; the lack of a Republican foreign policy consensus or even the party's major brand crisis.

Romney talks in generalities of approaching problems differently; of listening to many voices; of bringing efficient business practices to bear in Washington. This is fairly standard gruel. It reflects the reality that President Bush remains sufficiently popular so as to limit the potency and reach of change arguments within the party.

Romney has a much more aggressive change argument to make, one that, should he survive the primary calendar, and become the nominee, some of his longer-serving advisers will push him to make: Romney is nothing like the caricature of Republicans in Washington. As governor of Massachusetts, he was many things, but he was ethically uncorruptable. As a corporate manager, he was ruthless, generous, innovative. The substance of his health care plan has been criticized, but no one who is familiar with its origin and development can consign Romney to a secondary role. He deserves credit as a national leader here, but he seems too afraid that Republicans will punish him if he accepts that mantle.

Late last year, I asked one of Romney's close aides, Cindy Gillespie, how Romney would be different than others who promised change and could not deliver. "I don't know," she told me, "but I know he wants to do it, and he has to do it." The context for my question was Gillespie's observation that Romney was deeply affected by the disasterous response to Katrina and believed that a president with real management experience could have kept more people alive and prevented some of the horrible aftermath.

In Massachusetts, Romney had gall. He dared to challenge the status quo within his state Republican Party. He was so unpopular among Republican elites at the end that one can't help but admire him for sticking to his guns. The playbook he followed was his own.

So where is Romney's gall? I ask because his opponents, in some form or another, have natural and well-defined, easily distinguishable arguments. Just tick them off in your heads, gentle readers. Rudy. McCain. Even Fred Thompson, by dint of his personal attributes alone. Romney has had to work his way to the top tier, and he has succeeded. Without a clear and distinct change message, Republican voters may well begin to ask: "Why is he running?"