Mitt Romney unsurprisingly won all five primary contests last night by wide margins. And, when he stepped to the podium, he seemed like a man with the wind at his back, giving the best speech he has delivered so far in the campaign. Game on.
A few months ago, it was the incumbent, President Obama, who appeared to have the wind at his back. The unemployment numbers were beating analysts’ expectations indicating a more robust recovery was taking hold. The intervention in Libya had achieved its objective without the deployment of a single U.S. soldier on the ground. GM and Chrysler were reporting record sales and record profits. And the Republicans were engaged in a bitter primary fight in which Romney seemed unable to dispatch deeply flawed candidates like Gingrich and Santorum. As one Democratic adviser said to me over lunch, “General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead. Game over.”
But, last month’s unemployment numbers were far less robust than hoped. Iran and North Korea remain troublesome at best, dangerous at worst. The politics of Europe is shifting in ways that might actually help the economy rebound, moving away from the austerity plans that never work, but investors in the U.S. are allergic to any change, even change that most economists agree is praiseworthy. Gingrich’s campaign ceased being viable and Santorum dropped out. At least bin Laden is still dead.
Campaigns are like roller coasters to be sure, but no matter who won the GOP nod, and no matter how battered he was by the time he got there, you could predict that he would start the fall campaign with about 47% of the electorate behind him. And, unlike all his GOP challengers, Romney has a real campaign, run by professionals. As polls indicate the GOP rank-and-file was rallying around Romney, he had reason to be confident as he stepped onto the stage in New Hampshire last night. Even the choice of venue was indicative of someone thinking within his campaign structure: New Hampshire, unlike the five states that voted last night, will be a battleground state in November.
The theme of his speech was simple: “A better America begins tonight.” He blended neatly his denunciations of Obama’s record with the promise of better times ahead. Americans like optimists – ask Joel Osteen, the charlatan preacher who has made millions convincing people that God takes a special interest in their accumulation of material prosperity. Romney took a famous Democratic line, authored by James Carville, that first belonged to the Clinton War Room, and turned it nicely in its head. Romney said, “It’s still about the economy, and we’re not stupid.”
Of course, Romney must hope that Americans are forgetful. The policies that he proposes are remarkably like the policies that got America into the economic mess Obama inherited: lower taxes and less regulation. The economic collapse of 2008 was due, above all else, to the greed on Wall Street going unchecked by government regulators. I do not believe marginal tax rates have a huge impact on economic growth, but I do believe that government is the only actor in our society with the power to restrain the moneyed-interest, and the means for exercising such restraint is government regulation. It will be part of Obama’s burden to remind people of how bad things were when he came into office, without losing his sense of optimism about the future, a difficult task because so many millions of Americans, examining the circumstances of the lives, are something less than confident about that future.
Romney is right to say that Americans will have a stark set of choices in November. He is wrong – and will someone in the mainstream media please call him out on this – when he states that the Democratic approach will turn America into Greece. I wish the Democrats and President Obama were more like European socialists, but someone should remind Mr. Romney, that European-style social democracies, with their much more generous welfare state, includes Germany as well as Greece, and that there is something to be said for societies in which the economic cycles do not wreak such horrific human havoc because of their more generous welfare policies. Sadly, Obama can’t make that argument: Americans do not want to be told that we should be more like the rest of the world. But, I am waiting for the interview in which someone asks Romney to explain what is so bad about Germany, not just Greece, and what is so bad about a month paid vacation for all workers, and what is so bad about universal health care. American exceptionalism is not all on the upside.
A fine speech does not a campaign make. Romney still faces difficult problems. Republicans have united behind his candidacy but can still entertain huge doubts about his presidency. This fact flared up this week when Romney announced the appointment of Richard Grenell as a senior adviser on foreign policy. Grenell is openly gay and, while serving at the United Nations during the Bush administration, tried to have his partner listed with the other spouses in the UN’s Blue Book, a directory of all personnel. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, was not amused. “It’s concerning that you would have somebody tapped to be potentially in the administration that would continue policies that we’re seeing in the Obama administration,” Perkins said. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association was even more upset, tweeting, “Romney picks out & loud gay as a spokesman. If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead.” Romney does not only need the support of people like Fischer and Perkins, he needs their constituency to be enthusiastic. Between now and November 6, every appointment, every speech, will be a signal in the tug-of-war between the zelanti in the GOP and the establishment that produced Romney.
There is no denying that the Romney who spoke last night could give Obama a strong run for his money. In recent days, reports have surfaced that Bill Clinton has advised Obama’s campaign not to paint Romney as a flip-flopper but instead paint him as a right wing ideologue. I do not think the Obama campaign can actually make the charge stick: Romney simply does not come across as a rightwing true believer. But, the Tony Perkins and the Bryan Fischers of the world may be able to achieve what Clinton recommends and Obama’s campaign cannot achieve. The key decision the Romney campaign must make, and live with, is whether they are going to move to the center or stick with their base. He can’t really do both, as the Grenell appointment indicates. In a perverse way, the best thing Obama has going for him is the Tea Party evangelicals who brook no compromise, interpret every political issue in absolutist terms, and who insist on orthodoxy from their nominee.