Mitt Romney, Ronald Reagan, and the Election of 2008

Now that Mitt Romney appears to have won a solid victory in Michigan, I want to make a couple of points about his campaign in the context of this year’s election season.
First, the pervasive commentary over the last week to the effect that Michigan was do-or-die for Romney was, I think, nonsense. Even if Romney had lost narrowly to McCain in Michigan, which is not a winner-take-all state, he still would have been the overall leader in delegate count and would have received more votes from Republicans than anyone else so far.
The next event, in South Carolina, will most likely be won by neither Romney nor McCain. The fact is that the Republican race is wide open and could well result in a open convention. The media should stop trying to pressure candidates to drop out every time they don’t win a primary, and Republicans should value a candidate like Romney who is willing and able to compete not just here and there, but effectively across the country.
Second, I believe, with hindsight, that Romney made a fundamental but understandable error in his approach to the campaign. Romney and his advisers decided, early on, to position him as the one plausible candidate who is conservative on all three of the basic issue clusters: economics, national defense, and the social issues. As such, he could claim the mantle as heir to the Reagan coalition. This was a natural and maybe inevitable choice, but I think it turned out to be wrong.
Romney’s self-definition exposed him to ridicule because of the liberal positions he took on the social issues when he ran for Governor of Massachusetts. Romney’s brain trust apparently thought they could avoid this problem, maybe because they underestimated the power of YouTube, more likely because they knew that Romney really is a social conservative and assumed he would be credible as such. Instead, he was typecast early on as a flip-flopper and a plastic candidate. That image has hurt him more than anything else.
My guess is that Romney’s views on the social issues are similar to my own: he’s a social conservative, but doesn’t have much appetite for red-meat politics on abortion and gay marriage, and places much higher priority on the economy and national defense. With hindsight, I think there was a better way for Romney to position himself: as a conservative and supremely knowledgeable expert on the economy, as George Bush’s heir as a vigorous defender of the U.S. in the war against Islamic terrorism, and as a person who is himself a social conservative–just take one look at his family portrait–but who doesn’t talk much about those issues except in the context of the constitutional philosophy which will guide his appointment of judges. I think if he had followed this route, he would have been truer to himself and more credible to voters.
Is it too late for a course correction? Perhaps not, mostly because the economy is beginning to take center stage with voters. Romney needs to show passion, and the topic where passion works best for him is the economy. Moreover, some voters, at least, may realize that Romney not only feels their pain, he might actually have some idea what to do about it.
I don’t think Romney needs to do an about-face on the social issues. If he emphasizes his expertise in applying free-market solutions to economic problems, with strong national defense in a close second place, and if he couches whatever comments he makes on the social issues in terms of the only sphere where the President actually impacts them–the appointment of judges–he should be able to achieve a subtle shift in the way he presents himself to voters. He won’t, I think, be so vulnerable to attack on the basis of his relatively liberal positioning in 1990s Massachusetts. This approach will also posture him better for the general election, in which a large majority of voters don’t want gay marriage, but an even larger majority don’t want a President who is obsessed with preventing gay marriage.
Paul has written several posts, with which I agree, on whether the Reagan coalition has irretrievably splintered. I don’t think the conservative coalition has fallen apart, by any means. But the relative emphasis that should be given to each component of the conservative philosophy varies from time to time and from candidate to candidate. Ronald Reagan himself gave different weight to different aspects of conservatism in different races. He was elected Governor of California largely on the basis of his stout opposition to the counterculture that was infecting California’s universities and other institutions at the time. When he ran for President, his emphasis was on the economy first, foreign policy second, and the social issues a distant third, if they were on the radar screen at all. Those priorities were dictated by the Carter administration’s disastrous record on economic policy and by Reagan’s own decades-long study of, and opposition to, Communism.
Governor Romney should take a lesson from Reagan’s political history and adapt his campaign to the needs of the moment. The time has come to talk, not just expertly but passionately, about the economic issues that are rapidly taking center stage. The jury is still out on whether Mitt Romney can be a formidable enough campaigner to capture the White House. I’m certain, though, that the more he focuses his campaign on the issues to which he has devoted his life and his career, the better his chances will be.
PAUL adds: What’s so fascinating is the way the dynamic changes from state to state. In response to John’s thesis, I’m tempted to say that in South Carolina and Florida, Romney needs to stress either or both of his social conservatism and his hositility to illegal immigration. But with four strong candidates competing in South Carolina (including a southern social conservative and foe of illegal immigration) and up to five competing in Florida, maybe Mitt can do well enough just by emphasizing his economic and managerial expertise. And by the time Super Tuesday rolls around. . .well, who knows?
To comment on this post, go here.