Mitt Romney’s defeat in the South Carolina primary shows how he’s not such a strong candidate after all, not generally or not against Barack Obama.
Newt Gingrich was simply hurling the same insults at Romney as Barack Obama will do in greater force. “You’re a selfish capitalist. You’re greedy! You won’t release your tax returns!” Gingrich, whose motive was his own candidacy, of course, was in effect preparing Romney for what’s to come, if Romney ends up running against Obama.
Romney’s response? Essentially, “Um, um, um….”
Missing from Romney’s response, and from his campaign more generally, is any remote sense of backbone or conviction. Gingrich’s attacks were not mean or unfair; they were a gift. Romney could have shown himself as the advocate of capitalism he claims to be, in response. Instead, he just cringed, continued on as his glib self, trying not to say anything to offend anyone, and hope for the best.
This is a preview of what you’re going to see if Romney runs against Obama, and it’s not going to be any prettier.
Here are some things Romney could have said:
“Yes, I made money and I’m proud of it. I want America to be more of a place where everyone can do that. Under Obama, that’s not going to happen. Obama wants the government to determine how much money people can make, and keep. I want to do the opposite. I’m not embarrassed to acknowledge that I’m entitled to keep my hard earned money, and certainly not be forced to give all or most of it to the government. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I want to protect and expand this right to all Americans, including all the would-be millionaires out there.”
Or: “People who produce in the private sector are not vultures. Vultures pick at the values and belongings of others. Politicians who have never worked an honest day in the private sector in all their lives are the true vultures. Like Barack Obama, for instance. The vultures are not the ones who create anything; business owners in the private sector are the ones who do.”
Romney could have used Gingrich’s attacks to, in turn, attack Obama. It’s particularly easy to do this when Gingrich is attacking Romney on the same ideology as Obama’s. In the process, he could expose Gingrich as certainly no advocate of capitalism or free markets, and prepare himself for the more important battle yet to come. He could have won over conservatives and Republicans uneasy, to say the least, with his prior record in Massachusetts. Not that Romney deserves to win over any conscientious advocate of capitalism and free markets, given his record. But in a race with such dismal choices, it was his to lose. Now he has to fight his way all the way to the Republican convention, and perhaps continue fighting once he’s there.
The deeper issue here is one that most people don’t understand: Conviction matters. Conviction is practical. Romney’s lack of conviction and principle — due to his overwhelming dedication to not offend anybody — prevents him from defeating even an easily defeatable candidate such as Gingrich. How in the world is he going to defeat a sitting President who, although not enormously popular, is good at telling ignorant people stupid things that they want to hear?
Going through a political campaign — indeed, going through life — without a set of principles you’re prepared to stand by is like a ship going out to sea, or an airplane flying into the sky, without proper parts and maintenance.
The truism that “the more moderate the Republican candidate, the better chance he has against Obama” is false. Romney’s collapse from front-runner status illustrates this perfectly. The only way to defeat Obama is by offering a contrast, and to offer a consistent and credible explanation as to why one view is right, and the other is wrong. People will always listen to a contrast. They might not be convinced, but they’ll listen. But if you insist on saying nothing in particular, you’re never going to win anything.
This is particularly true in 2012. Obama is one of the most philosophical and ideological Presidents we have ever had. He is an open advocate of the idea that we are all our brother’s keepers, and that the function of government is to enforce this principle. He consistently and without blinking advocates in favor of government redistribution and intervention, and against private interest and private profit. He has never worked in the private sector in his life, and considers himself morally superior because of this fact. He’s well positioned to tell Mitt Romney, “You’re evil. You took money from others so you can have a profit. I, on the other hand, work to make sure people get money.”
If Romney responds to this with the right answer, he’ll have a fighting chance to unseat Obama. If he really feels guilty for what he’s done, then it will come across by his insistence on either not responding or merely saying, “Um, um, um….” If Romney thinks Gingrich is tough, he hasn’t seen anything yet. Obama is the master of faux virtue, the mythological Robin Hood who takes from the undeserving to give to the deserving. This, in fact, is not what socialism is, at all. Socialism takes from those who produce/create and gives to those who are politically connected. In the process, it creates unprecedented debt, and slows if not eliminates economic growth altogether. The last few years are the best and most recent proof of this. The argument is there, waiting to be made by Mitt Romney or whoever claims the Republican nomination.
The question is: Does he understand it? Or does Mitt Romney stand for anything — at all?