Increasingly, it seems likely that Mitt Romney will attain the Republican presidential nomination for 2012. He’s a deeply flawed candidate. He has flip-flopped on issues more than any other candidate in modern times, and that’s saying something. In the span of less than a decade, he has favored socialized medicine, a free market for medicine, Big Government, unhampered capitalism, abortion rights, gay marriage, anti gay-marriage amendments and anti-abortion laws. He favors high taxes, low taxes and the status quo, all at the same time. Reviewing his record makes one intellectually dizzy. But if Romney is deeply flawed, his opponents are profoundly flawed. Gingrich and Perry are opposing Romney based on arguments from the socialist left. Santorum is a religious fanatic who reportedly opposes the “pursuit of happiness.” And Ron Paul, while refreshing as a fiscal hawk, is an even more extreme pacifist than Obama, who actually says the crazy fundamentalist mullahs in Iran should have a nuclear bomb.
Can Mitt Romney beat Obama?
The conventional wisdom is yes; that he’s the only one who can beat Obama. Even some of the smarter and more principled Republicans are staking their hopes on this claim.
Don’t be so sure. I’ve been doing some research on Romney, particularly in his 1994 U.S. Senate race against Ted Kennedy. That was a very bad year for Democrats, and in the polls Romney started out even against Kennedy, in September. Kennedy ended up crushing him.
Romney’s campaign was effective in portraying Kennedy as soft on crime, but had trouble establishing its own positions in a consistent manner. By mid-September 1994, polls showed the race to be approximately even. Kennedy responded with a series of attack ads, which focused both on Romney’s seemingly shifting political views on issues such as abortion and on the treatment of workers at the Ampad plant owned by Romney’s Bain Capital. The latter was effective in blunting Romney’s momentum. Kennedy and Romney held a widely watched late October debate without a clear winner, but by then Kennedy had pulled ahead in polls and stayed ahead afterward. Romney spent over $7 million of his own money, and Kennedy spent more than $10 million from his campaign fund, mostly in the last weeks of the campaign (this was the second-most expensive race of the 1994 election cycle, after the Dianne Feinstein—Michael Huffington Senate race in California). In the November general election, despite a disastrous showing for Democrats overall, Kennedy won the election with 58 percent of the vote to Romney’s 41 percent, the smallest margin in Kennedy’s eight re-election campaigns for the Senate.
I can see the headlines from November 2012, as clear as if they were yesterday:
Romney’s campaign was effective in portraying Obama as a poor steward of the national economy, but had trouble establishing its own positions in a consistent manner. By mid-September 2012, polls showed the race to be approximately even. Obama responded with a series of attack ads, which focused both on Romney’s seemingly shifting political views on issues such as abortion and on his continuing support of RomneyCare, the basis for the ObamaCare law that Romney now says he opposes. The latter was effective in blunting Romney’s momentum. The Democrats repeatedly blasted Romney for his shifting positions, and effectively expanded on Gingrich’s and Perry’s claims that Romney was a “vulture capitalist” who laid off people so he could earn millions. Obama and Romney held a widely watched late October debate without a clear winner, but by then Obama had pulled ahead in polls and stayed ahead afterward. Romney spent millions of his own money, and Obama spent more than $1 billion from his campaign fund, promoted by celebrities such as Ellen de Generes, Oprah and other heavy hitters. In the November general election, despite a pretty bad showing for Democrats including loss of the U.S. Senate majority, Obama won the election with 54 percent of the vote to Romney’s 46 percent.
Politicians, more than regular people, tend to learn least from their mistakes. By all indications, Romney is the same man today that he was in 1994 — unprincipled, uncertain, and glib in his willingness to agree with whomever can get him what he wants, at the moment he wants it. No, he’s not a die-hard socialist like Obama is, who will never, ever budge on his principle that we are all our brother’s keepers, and government must make sure this is always the case. But Romney is not a die-hard anything. He never has been, and he never will be. Is that better or worse than having Obama in charge as the ship goes down, as it will without a principled alternative to his socialism? We all will have to make that judgment as voters, when the time comes.
Of course, my projected scenario excludes another factor: Donald Trump running as a third party candidate (with maybe Ron Paul thrown in, as well.) At that point, the anti-Obama forces will be split two or even three ways. All of this could have been avoided with a principled and competent alternative to Obama. Romney seems presidential, and compared to the spectacles he’s running against, I don’t disagree. But principled he’s not. And that’s the tragedy of the 2012 race. Whoever wins, this will not be the year that America reversed course. Things will have to get worse before they get better.