Before Trump, Newt Gingrich drew a flurry of publicity, in part by
attacking Obama for not pursuing military action in Libya. Once the
president sent in the war planes, Gingrich attacked him for doing so,
reminding everyone of why he is regarded as a joke. The early bet to
embarrass Republicans, Sarah Palin, has so far proved only a minor
distraction. But rushing in to fill the void are a menagerie of talk radio
hosts (Rick Santorum, Herman Cain), talking heads (Gingrich), and people
who talk mostly to say outrageous things (Trump, Michele Bachmann).
Having kept a dignified distance from this circus, Romney has avoided
being tarnished by it. And even when drawn in, he has demonstrated
surprising good sense. He dismissed the issue of Obama's birth certificate
out of hand.
The second smart reason for biding his time has to do with Romney
himself. He's not a champion campaigner. The idea of Romney -- businessman,
governor, adult -- frequently outstrips the man himself. An energetic course
of early primary campaigning might well have left him worse off, not
Romney demonstrated in the last election an exceptional incapacity
to convince others that he buys his own spin -- no small handicap in a
politician. Last time around, he tried to overcome this deficiency by
spinning even harder. But the pandering and insincerity this engendered
proved deadly. One shudders to imagine what he might have said if let loose
on the campaign trial in full pander mode at the height of the birther
craze as Trump soared in the polls.
But this hasn't been a problem. Like a glutton who has undergone
bariatric surgery, Romney has starved himself of opportunities to be
embarrassed by remaining on the sidelines and looks much better for it.
Of course, the limits of such a strategy are obvious. At some point,
Romney will have to partake of the primary process, and without a guarantee
of faring any better. Last Friday, he made an inauspicious debut as a 2012
candidate at a Republican summit on jobs and the economy in Manchester,
N.H., causing his audience to wince by declaring he would ''hang'' Obama
with the country's economic problems. Oddly for an economic summit, his
speech focused on American exceptionalism and endeavored to portray Obama
as a weak and pusillanimous leader. This didn't stir the crowd, and his
critique of the president already seems outdated.
But Romney is not likely to pay any price. In a field as weak as the
current one, Romney can win without really exciting anybody. The key is for
him to wait patiently until the noisier contenders burn themselves out like
Roman candles and the conservative mood shifts from eager anticipation to
concern to desperation. This process is already underway.
Soon enough, conservatives will start to panic. They'll realize that
they need someone who is serious, sober, competent, and unlikely to
embarrass them; someone who won't look ridiculous debating President Obama.
Romney is all these things and hasn't had to lift a finger to convince
anyone of it. Until then, the best thing he can do to promote himself is
nothing at all.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.
Drop-down image credit: Reuters